To Measure Xi Jinping’s Power, Look to the Provinces and the Garrisons

by Jack Zhang

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.

The date of China’s 19th Party Congress has been set for October 18. The political jockeying ahead of the Party Congress is particularly elevated this year because of the high stakes involved. Nearly half of the 200-member Central Committee and its 25-member Politburo are due to retire at the 19th Party Congress in October, along with all but two of the ruling Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) if Mr. Xi abides by precedent. The unexpected fall of former Chongqing party secretary Sun Zhengcai, long thought to be a frontrunner for the PBSC and a shoe-in for China’s next-generation leadership, has fueled a more intense round of rumor mongering going into the Beidaihe retreat this year. Much of this speculation has been about what the composition of the new PBSC will reveal about Xi Jinping’s plans for succession. But one lesson from Chinese history is that the balance of power in the provinces and in garrisons often matter more for Chinese politics than who is up and who is down in the palace (corollary: prematurely anointing heirs apparent is a dangerous business for both the appointer and appointee).

But one lesson from Chinese history is that the balance of power in the provinces and in garrisons often matter more for Chinese politics than who is up and who is down in the palace.

When Mr. Xi ascended to the top spot of the party leadership during the 18th Party Congress in 2012, he inherited a politburo, standing committee, and military commission picked by his predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Now, midway through his expected ten-year term, he is able to reshape these committees by elevating his allies and protégés. Examining these patterns of promotion of provincial leaders and top generals provides us with a more complete picture of Xi Jinping’s consolidation of political power than who ultimately ends up on the PBSC.

Personal Control of the Gun: Consolidating power in the PLA

As mentioned in Professor Tai Ming Cheung’s briefing, Xi Jinping has made reform of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) one of his top priorities during his first term and where he has made the most political gains. Mr. Xi inherited a bloated PLA widely reviled for corruption and nepotism, whose various headquarters operated almost as separate fiefs. In 2014, he initiated a wave of sweeping reforms of the PLA by subordinating the four headquarters under the central military commission (CMC), restructuring the seven military regions into five new theater commands, creating two new military branches, and establishing 84 new corps-level units. He has also waged an anti-corruption campaign at the highest echelons of the PLA which investigated hundreds of senior officers and, as Professor Cheung pointed out, curbed the autonomy of the military. These reforms to create a leaner military capable of modern joint-operations have been deeply unpopular among PLA officers because they reduce patronage based promotional opportunities under the military regions system. But they greatly enhance Mr. Xi’s power by centralizing decision making in his various offices and creating opportunities to promote officers loyal to him to new commands.

The fruits of Mr. Xi’s reforms were put on full display as he reviewed combat units from all five branches in a field parade to celebrate the 90th Anniversary of the PLA, as the delegate lists were being finalized for the 19th Party Congress. The 28 generals featured in this parade were overwhelmingly younger officers promoted after 2014. When the list of military delegates to the Party Congress was announced in September, the 5th and 6th ranking members of CMC, Fang Fenghui and Zhang Yang, were excluded along with their deputies. Their exclusion means that seven of the eleven CMC seats will be vacant and has fueled speculation that the CMC will be cut down to as few as five seats, Xi and four vice-chairmen, doing away with committee members and streamlining reporting lines. But the more important fact is that over 80 percent of seats reserved for the military on the Central Committee are expected to change hands in the largest turnover of PLA leadership in the history of the People’s Republic of China. This cohort of  young guards  will not only be more professionally prepared for modern joint military operations but also owe their careers to Xi Jinping. The politics of who advances will herald changes in PLA strategy and doctrine, in the relative power between the various branches of service and theater commands, and in civil-military relations. These structural changes to the Chinese military are what to watch out for at the 19th Party Congress rather than the promotion of men rumored to be Xi’s allies, such as Zhang Youxia or Li Zuocheng (rumors about the political loyalties of PLA officers have been notoriously unreliable: Liu Yuan, Cai Yingting, and Fang Fenggui have all been identified as belonging to Xi’s faction’ in the past and have all been sidelined).

All of Xi’s Men: Consolidating Power in the Provinces

Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power in the provinces ahead of the Party Congress is no less impressive than his achievements in the PLA. Since the start of 2016, Mr. Xi has replaced 23 of the Communist Party’s 31 provincial party secretaries, nearly twice as many as Hu Jintao managed to install after his first term. Provincial party secretaries, colloquially known as yibashou (roughly translated as top leader), are entrusted with enormous power and unconstrained discretion within his jurisdiction. The political support of the provincial yibashou is crucial both because they command vast economic resources and because their cooperation is necessary for policy implementation. Because the elevation of leaders to the PBSC will vacate key administrative posts in Guangdong and Shanghai, it is also worth paying attention to the 27 provincial governorships that have been reshuffled since 2016 (governors are second-in-command).

Mr. Xi’s protégés, men who served under him in Zhejiang or Fujian, have been promoted to party secretaries in Beijing (Cai Qi), Chongqing (Chen Min’er), and Jiangsu (Li Qiang). Ying Yong, another Zhejiang protégé, is expected to take over as party secretary of Shanghai if Han Zheng gets a seat in the PBSC. The new party secretary of Tianjin, Li Hongzhong, though not a Xi protégé, has gone out of his way to publicly display his loyalty by campaigning for Mr. Xi to be formally recognized as the core  of the party. Because of the importance of their jurisdictions, these men are also shoe-ins for membership in the politburo.

Other Xi allies who have ascended to power in the provinces include Bayinchaolu, who became party secretary of Jilin, Li Xi, who became party secretary of Liaoning, Lou Yangsheng, who is currently the governor and likely will become the yibashou in Shanxi, Liu Qi, who is currently governor and in position to become the yibashou in Jiangxi, and Zhao Kezhi, a protégé of Mr. Xi’s ally and likely PBSC member Li Zhanshu, who was promoted to party secretary of Hebei.

The economies of these provinces add up to over one third of Chinese GDP and they include all four centrally-administered municipalities. One important consequence of Hu Chunhua’s promotion to the PBSC would be that leadership of Guangdong, the last major economic center not controlled by Xi Jinping’s loyalists, would be up for grabs. Two other Xi protégés of note are Gong Zheng, the newly appointed governor of Shandong, and Hu Heping, the newly appointed governor of Shaanxi, both of whom are born after 1960 and are contenders for 6th generation leadership. Detailed biographical data about these leaders are available at the CCP Elite Database.

The factional balance of power in the provinces is more important for the broader landscape of Chinese politics than who gets a seat on the PBSC or whether retirement rules are followed on October 18. It is a better measure of Xi Jinping’s political staying power than whether Chen Min’er gets in/Wang Qishan stays on/Hu Chunhua is kept out because it determines the pipeline of candidates eligible for future politburo and PBSC positions for the next decade. It could also prepare the ground for economic reforms should Mr. Xi choose to make these a priority in his second term. As central administrative power is concentrated in his leading groups, Mr. Xi may delegate directly to his followers in the provinces. Whether this represents a Mao-style “over-concentration of authority“ or Deng-style strategy of “playing to the provinces” remains to be seen.

Other articles in this series:

One Belt, One Road, One Leader: Xi Jinping’s Environmental and Infrastructure Initiatives

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Jack Zhang

Jiakun Jack Zhang is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas (KU). He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Political Science at UC San Diego. His dissertation examines when and why economically interdependent countries use military versus economic coercion in foreign policy disputes. In 2018-2019, he was a postdoctoral research fellow in the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance at Princeton University. Jack holds a bachelor's degree in political science and a certificate in East Asian studies from Duke University, where he served as the Editor-in-Chief of Duke East Asia Nexus and was a co-founder of the Duke-UNC China Leadership Summit. At UC San Diego, he served as the senior advisor to the 21st Century China Center’s China Focus Blog. Prior to coming to UC San Diego, Jack worked as a China researcher for the Eurasia Group in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @HanFeiTzu.

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