Beijing’s Game of Thrones: Signaling Loyalty Before the Party Congress

by Victor Shih

The Expert Briefing is a special column dedicated to publishing the analysis and views of 21st Century China Center scholars on Chinese economy, politics, and society.

Beijing is now in the thick of election season.  Yet, if you were to drive around Beijing, you wouldn’t know it.  There are no campaign posters or pictures of candidates for high offices anywhere.  In fact, most Communist Party members, who are the “selectors” in the upcoming Congress, didn’t even know until just a few days ago when the congress would be held, October 18th.  Although the congress plays a major role in selecting the future leaders of China and in determining major policies, a small handful of current and former officials make the ultimate decisions. As far as we can guess, these several hundred officials include past and current members of the Politburo, current members of the Central Committee and perhaps some additional members of the military.  Most of the power to choose China’s top leaders likely resides in the hands of past and current Politburo Standing Committee members, with the past and current party General Secretaries (Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping) having the greatest say.

Given the closed-door nature of the Party Congress, would one expect no outward sign of jockeying?  Careful watchers of the official media may well pick up important signs of “campaigning” among aspirants of high offices.  The purpose of such campaigning is to signal credibly to high level patrons, in this case, to Xi Jinping in particular, that once selected, the candidate will faithfully execute the wishes of the patron.  Economists studying industrial organizations have long realized that everyone has an incentive to engage in “cheap talk” or make empty promises to the patron.  Still, some ways of signaling loyalty are more credible than others.  Here is how Xi and you as an observer can sort out the credible signals from the cheap talk.

First, candidates for high offices will try to show that they will carry out particular policy drives that are initiated by powerful patrons at the top.  Spending effort to carry out general policies like economic growth or tax collection is not credible signaling because achieving such targets benefits the entire regime, not just individual patrons.  However, some Chinese leaders have staked their personal prestige on major policy drives, and subordinates who expend considerable effort to make them successes send credible signals that they are willing to rise and fall with their patrons.

We have already seen such signaling by regional leaders, especially Beijing Party Secretary Cai Qi, who had worked alongside Xi in both Fujian and Zhejiang in the past.  According to stories published in the People’s Daily, Beijing will do its utmost to make the Xiong’an New District — an ambitious plan to move much of commerce and industry out of Beijing and into the satellite city — a great success because it is a “thousand-year plan” launched by Xi Jinping.  More recently, Cai Qi penned an essay where he states that “the primary mission of the Beijing government is now to study and implement deeply…Secretary General Xi Jinping’s important speeches…and remarks by Secretary General Xi Jinping during his inspection trip.”

Beijing Party Secretary Cai Qi

In his essays, Cai made clear that Beijing is willing to carry out the costly undertaking of ensuring only the core functions of administration, diplomacy, innovation, and core culture for Beijing, as instructed by Xi.  This undertaking is potentially very costly because Beijing would need to move much of its commerce and industry out of the capital city in the near future.

Another method of credible signaling is to publicly grovel at a top level patron, even to a nauseating degree.  This is done to signal that the groveler is willing to pay the potential social costs of being ostracized by her peers in order to win the patron’s favor.  A recent essay penned by the newly-appointed Hubei party secretary Jiang Chaoliang published in the People’s Daily can be viewed as such a “campaign” signal.  In this essay, Jiang described many policies Hubei had carried out exactly according to the instructions of Xi Jinping.  Furthermore, he demanded that all cadres in Hubei must “steadfastly support the unified leadership of the Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core and must insist on the guidance of a series of important speeches by Xi Jinping and Xi’s new concepts, new thoughts, and new strategic thinking on governance.” Such obtuse language may be a mouthful, but it serves to credibly signal loyalty to the one constituency that matters, Xi Jinping.

To be sure, showing commitment to top leaders’ policies and public groveling are nothing new.  However, under the Xi Administration, he has asked senior officials to undertake a number of very costly projects, including a sweeping anti-corruption drive, the One Belt One Road Initiative, Xiong’an New Zone, and restricting Beijing to core administrative functions.  For anti-corruption, officials saw the destruction of their own patronage networks.  For the other policy initiatives, officials have to raise trillions of RMB in funds and clear thousands of acres of land for infrastructure related to Xi’s pet projects.  In the ideological realm, Xi has launched an unprecedented number of ideological drives since taking office, bucking the trend of post-reform pragmatism.  The latest drive requires senior officials to all closely study a series of Xi’s speeches.  Both the policy drives and ideological campaigns allow Xi to observe varying degrees of loyalty among local and central officials and to sideline or even purge officials lacking sufficient loyalty while promoting the loyalists.  Such deliberate and systematic effort to monitor the loyalty of officials to the leader is unprecedented in the post-Mao Chinese Communist Party.

Other articles in this series:

Xi Jinping’s U-turn to Personalistic Rule

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Victor Shih

is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the School of Global Policy & Strategy (GPS) at UC San Diego. Shih publishes widely on the politics of Chinese banking policies, fiscal policies and exchange rates and was the first analyst to identify the risk of massive local government debt. Shih previously worked as a principal for the Carlyle Group in its hedge fund arm in New York City. He is currently engaged in a study of how the coalition-formation strategies of the founding leaders had a profound impact on the evolution of the Chinese Communist Party. He is also constructing a large database on biographical information of elites in China to better understand the importance of networks in political decision-making. Shih holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University.

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