Ruling Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping will be looking to eliminate high-profile rivals and other influential figures from the political scene, while taking a firmer grip of the country’s purse-strings at the forthcoming National People’s Congress annual session in Beijing, analysts told Radio Free Asia in recent interviews.
Xi is widely expected to announce thorough-going political restructuring that will give him still more concentrated power over the daily affairs of the country, including the downgrading of the State Council in favor of special committees controlled by the highest echelons of party leaders in Beijing.
He also presides over a flagging economy, a massive hole in public finances following three years of the zero-COVID policy and flatlining business confidence, amid an ongoing crackdown on private companies and prominent members of the financial elite.
Plans are underway to hive off the ministries of public security and state security from the government hierarchy, and run their portfolios under a party Central Internal Affairs Commission similar to the structure used by Moscow in the days of the Soviet Union, Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper reported recently.
Other State Council functions could also migrate to direct party control, including the departments in charge of Hong Kong and Macau, and of managing ties with democratic Taiwan.
Independent political commentator Cai Shenkun said much of the expected restructuring, public details of which will likely emerge at the National People’s Congress, will be aimed at ensuring that no effective or popular political figure can rise to challenge Xi’s personal power and influence.
“Downgrading the State Council would actually make it impossible for anyone to rise to a place of prominence from within its ranks,” Cai said.
He said Xi may have succeeded in stacking the ruling party’s Politburo and its all-powerful, seven-member standing committee with officials loyal to him, but he still has a nagging worry that one of them could become powerful enough to bring him down.
“He won’t be totally trusting of those people, even of someone as loyal to him as Li Qiang,” Cai said, in a reference to the Politburo standing committee member widely expected to be made premier at the forthcoming National People’s Congress.
“This may now become the norm for China’s political structure, going forward.”
Financial challenges ahead
U.S.-based journalist Deng Yuwen, a former editor of Communist Party school publication, said Xi is likely more focused on gearing up for financial challenges, however.
“He has been in power for a long time now, so there isn’t anyone who could challenge his position,” Deng said. “Given the current environment, his top priority will be ensuring that certain problems don’t arise, such as in the financial sector.”
Deng said Xi had already taken much of the State Council’s power for himself during his last five-year term in office, taking the responsibility for running the economy away from his premier Li Keqiang, in a break with decades of collective leadership at the top of the party.
“The State Council is just an administrative department now,” Deng said, although he said Li Keqiang did have a seat on Xi’s powerful committees governing financial and economic affairs as well as state reforms, and that he expects that to continue under Li Qiang.
Scott Kennedy, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said there are concerns that Xi is moving away from the tendency in recent decades to appoint economic technocrats to run the economy.
“For the last 30-plus years, China’s economic performance has depended on very smart, wise, economic bureaucrats who have [been] given political space to implement a whole variety of economic policies that are pragmatic,” Kennedy said.
“There’s a worry that this era is coming to an end, certainly because of the overall direction and trajectory Xi Jinping wants to take the country, his emphasis on political loyalty above expertise,” he said.
He said the officials currently heading the central bank, banking regulators and security market regulars are all scheduled for retirement or redeployment, with their more powerful political mentors also expected to step down at this parliament.
“Their replacements, who have not been named yet, may understand math, but they may not understand economies, and they may understand who their boss is even more,” Kennedy said. “The economy looks really problematic – short term and long term.”
Jude Blanchette, who holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the same institution, said Xi will likely build on the significant restructuring he began at the 2018 National People’s Congress.
“We saw significant transfer of power vertically from the State Council up into the Communist Party,” Blanchette said. “So we saw party organizations take over roles that had previously been held by state council ministries and bureaucracies. “
Mounting debt burden
He said Xi has a tendency to elevate party-led “working groups,” which used to play a coordinating role within the party hierarchy, to the status of commissions, or ministries, in a significant expansion of their power.
“The indications are that the reform plan that’s going to be announced this year will be, roughly, equal in its importance,” he said.
Cai agreed that the financial sector is going to be a key priority for Xi, noting the recent detention of China Renaissance private banker Bao Fan, who is “assisting the authorities with an investigation,” according to a company notice filed with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
“Xi Jinping wants to set up a new Central Financial Work Committee,” he said. “It may be that he thinks that Li…
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