Xi Jinping’s New Economic Team and Government Re-organization
The annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) that ended in mid-March unveiled a new economic team and a blueprint for government reorganization. Members of the new economic team are close supporters of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. They also have varying degrees of technocratic competence and experience as economic policy-makers. The profiles of the senior members of the economic team suggest that Xi has already assembled a group of strong candidates to take over the State Council in five years’ time. Because the members of the new team have close ties to Xi but no connections with one another, they are likely rivals for future promotions. For the most part, the reorganization of the government seeks to further strengthen the party’s direct control of the state. The financial sector will be affected the most by the reorganization.
The two most noteworthy outcomes of this year’s session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) are the formal appointment of the members of the State Council, the Chinese cabinet, and the unveiling of a plan to reorganize the government. For the first time since he rose to power a decade ago, Xi Jinping now has an economic team of his own. Theoretically, complete control of the State Council should allow Xi to better implement his security-centered economic policy. At the same time, the announced reorganization of the government will mark another step toward realizing Xi’s vision of complete dominance by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the state bureaucracies. Although it is too early to say anything about how the new economic team will perform or whether the proposed government reorganization will improve the effectiveness of the affected bureaucracies, we can provide a preliminary look at the new economic team, in particular the ties of its key members with Xi and with other senior leaders, their experience and qualifications, and Xi’s likely political motivations behind their appointments. In this essay, we first offer brief biographic descriptions of the leading members of the State Council: the premier, the four vice premiers, the chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), and key ministers. Then we focus on their technocratic qualifications and some of the more notable characteristics of this economic team. Our attention afterwards shifts to the political implications of their appointments and the signals Xi may be sending with such appointments. We end with a brief discussion of the proposed government reorganization plan. A Team of Loyalists While Xi had two supporters in the previous State Council (Executive Vice Premier Han Zheng and Vice Premier Liu He), his loyalists now have total control of the new State Council. The new premier, Li Qiang (李强), 63, worked directly under Xi from 2003 to 2007, first as party chief of Wenzhou, a city known for its pioneering private entrepreneurs, and then as Xi’s chief of staff. Li’s rapid promotions after Xi’s rise in 2012 was almost certainly due to Xi’s support. Li became governor of Zhejiang province in December 2012, barely a month after Xi assumed the position of CCP general secretary. In June 2016 Xi promoted Li to be party chief of Jiangsu province, mainly as a temporary stepping-stone for his next big promotion. In October 2017, Xi made Li party chief of Shanghai and a Politburo member. (All Shanghai party chiefs, except for one who was purged in 2006 on corruption charges, have been later promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the party’s top decision-making body.) The executive vice premier, Ding Xuexiang (丁薛祥), 60, first worked as Xi’s chief of staff in Shanghai from March 2007 to November 2007 when Xi served briefly as the city’s party chief. Despite this brief period of overlap, Ding must have left a very strong impression on Xi, who brought him to Beijing shortly after he became the top leader. From March 2013 to October 2022, Ding served as director of the “office of the state president” (Xi’s office). In October 2017, Ding was promoted to the Politburo and he also became director of the General Office of the party’s Central Committee. The second-ranked vice premier, He Lifeng (何立峰), 67, has known Xi longer than any of the other new top leaders in the State Council. The two first overlapped in the mid-1980s in Xiamen, where Xi was a deputy mayor and He Lifeng was director of the city’s finance bureau. During Xi’s tenure as governor of Fujian province (January 1999 to October 2002), He Lifeng served in a variety of subordinate positions, and in 2002 he sat together with Xi on the provincial party standing committee. After spending four years in Tianjin as a municipal official, in June 2014 He Lifeng was promoted by Xi to be a deputy chairman of the NDRC, the powerful planning and regulatory agency. The, in less than three years he became its chairman. As a successor to Liu He, who has just stepped down as the second-ranked vice premier, He Lifeng will be in charge of the financial sector, and he also will take over Liu He’s position as director of the Office of the Central Finance Commission, which is chaired by Xi and has final say on major economic policies. While Li, Ding, and He are relatively well-known Xi loyalists, the two other new vice premiers, Zhang Guoqing (张国清), 58, and Liu Guozhong (刘国中), 60, have looser ties with Xi and are less well-known. In the case of Zhang, whose portfolio seems to include science, technology, and industry, his early career did not intersect with that of Xi, even though he began to rise rapidly under Xi, in particular after 2016 when he became Tianjin’s mayor. In 2020 he was made party chief of Liaoning province and, at the CCP’s 20th Party Congress in October 2022, he was promoted to the Politburo. Zhang’s latest promotion is especially significant because he served only two years as a provincial party chief. Xi’s support is the most plausible explanation for Zhang’s helicopter-like ascent. The career of Liu Guozhong, the last-ranked vice premier, is similar to that of Zhang. Liu’s early career did not intersect with that of Xi. However, Liu is a close associate of Li Zhanshu, a Xi loyalist who has just retired from the Politburo PSC. Liu Guozhong worked under Li Zhanshu in Heilongjiang province between 2003 and 2010. Like Zhang, Liu’s star began to rise after February 2016 when Xi made him governor of Jilin province. In less than two years Xi promoted him to be governor of Shaanxi province, a more substantial appointment. In July 2020 Liu became party chief of Shaanxi. His promotion to the position of vice premier occurred more rapidly than usual. He will be in charge of agriculture because of his experience in Heilongjiang, a large food producer. The appointment of Zheng Shanjie (郑珊洁), 61, as the new chairman of the NDRC, positions the former party chief of Anhui province advantageously as a candidate for vice premier in five years’ time. Zheng began his climb in the CCP hierarchy as a local official in Xiamen, where Xi once served as a deputy mayor. It is likely that Zheng got to know Xi in the late 1990s and early 2000s as their careers in Fujian overlapped. It was only after Xi’s rise to the top that Zheng’s career began to flourish. In February 2015, Xi promoted him to be a deputy governor of Fujian. Eight months later, Xi brought Zheng to the central government, first as a deputy director of the State Energy Bureau (a powerful regulator inside the NDRC). In a surprise career move, Zheng was made a deputy director of the Taiwan Office in April 2017. Like other Xi loyalists, Zheng soon found himself in an entirely different, but more senior, position. In December 2017, Zheng was appointed party chief of Ningbo, a major economic center in Zhejiang. This appointment, it turned out, paved the way for Xi to elevate Zheng to be governor of Zhejiang province in August 2020. A little over one year later, Xi promoted Zheng to be party chief of Anhui, where he served for only one year before being brought back to Beijing to head the NDRC. What this dizzying series of promotions after 2015 – virtually unheard of before Xi but quite routine today – tells us is that Zheng must be seen as extremely loyal by Xi for him to be rotated through these various appointments so as to build up the necessary credentials for a top-level position. An unusual feature of the new State Council is the substantial number of ministerial holdovers from the previous cabinet, most likely because the experience of these former ministers is needed for a smooth transition. Of the key economic portfolios, Xi’s loyalists control the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, whose minister, Jin Zhuanglong (金壮龙), 59, was appointed in 2022. Jin had previously served as executive deputy director of the office of the Central Commission for Military-Civil Fusion Development (中央军民融合发展委员会), which is chaired by Xi. The current Minister of Commerce, Wang Wentao (王文涛), 58, has held his position since December 2020 and he is likely to stay on for another five years. He briefly worked under Xi in Shanghai in 2007 and he rose quickly after 2015. He was promoted to be governor of Heilongjiang province in 2018 prior to his appointment as minister of Commerce. The ministerial holdovers from the last cabinet include Yi Gang (易纲), 64, head of the central bank (the People’s Bank of China [PBOC]). However, this highly regarded American-educated technocrat is not on the CCP Central Committee and is very likely to be replaced within a couple of years. His reported successor is Zhu Hexin (朱鹤新), 55, an alternate member of the Central Committee and a veteran in the Chinese financial sector, including a brief stint as a deputy governor of the central bank from 2018 to 2020. Zhu’s political star began to rise in 2016 when Xi moved him to Sichuan to be a deputy governor. In March 2020 Zhu was made chairman of China International Trust Investment Corporation (CITIC) (中信集团), a giant state-owned conglomerate. In April of this year, shortly after the end of the NPC session, CITIC announced that Zhu had resigned from the chairmanship and he was waiting for “a new assignment,” an indication that he is likely to be the next central bank governor. The incumbent finance minister, Liu Kun (刘昆), 66, is also likely to be replaced within several years but not by any of the incumbent vice ministers, as none of them is on the Central Committee. Experience and Qualifications Judging by their resumes, this State Council boasts the best educational credentials in the party’s history, with the exception of Premier Li Qiang, who received what appears to be a three-year college education after taking perhaps a highly competitive entrance exam in December 1977 or June 1978. All four vice premiers received four years of college education. However, they have varying levels of experience and qualifications as technocrats. Compared with Li Keqiang, the recently retired premier, Li Qiang seems to be a more experienced economic manager at a comparable stage of his career, even though he lacks national-level experience. Unlike his predecessor, Li Qiang rose to the top from the very bottom (he first served as a township official and then as a county official). In the Chinese party-state, officials at the grassroots levels must demonstrate strong problem-solving skills and administrative records to expect a promotion. By comparison, Li Keqiang, who started his career as chief of the Communist Youth League in Beijing, lacked grassroots administrative experience. Li Qiang’s extended experience in Zhejiang, a business-friendly province, and his alleged good ties with private entrepreneurs such as Jack Ma of Alibaba could also be a plus in his favor. However, Li’s number two, Ding Xuexiang, has the least amount of experience as a technocrat. Trained as a metallurgical engineer, Ding spent most of his career as a party official responsible for personnel and as chief of staff for Xi. He spent only three years as a district mayor in Shanghai (2001–2004), which gave him first-hand experience as an economic manager. Xi’s choice of Ding as executive vice premier breaks with convention, as all previous appointees to this position either served as a vice premier or as a provincial governor. Based on the portfolios given to his predecessor, Han Zheng, Ding is likely to be responsible for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, the NDRC, public finance and taxes, natural resources, the environment (which includes climate change), and housing and urban development. He Lifeng, the successor to Liu He, spent five years in the municipal finance bureau of Xiamen from 1985 to 1990 before rising through the party system as an apparatchik. He became reacquainted with economic management in 2014 when he was appointed as one of the five vice chairmen of the NDRC and was put in charge of regional development. He is expected to take over Liu He’s portfolio, which includes the financial sector and foreign trade, two areas in which He Lifeng does not have any prior experience. Like He Lifeng, the new chair of the NDRC, Zheng Shanjie, has insufficient experience in his main area of responsibility – industrial policy and regulations. The background of Vice Premier Zhang Guoqing is noteworthy because Zhang spent many years in China’s aerospace and defense industries. After obtaining a master’s degree in foreign trade in 1987 (he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in optics and electronics in 1985), Zhang worked as a manager in China’s largest defense conglomerate, Norinco (中国兵器工业集团). In 2008, he became president of Norinco, where he served until early 2013. Zhang is likely to oversee the defense industry and science and technology. The appointment of Zhang reflects Xi’s desire to have an experienced technocrat in charge of implementing his policies to accelerate the drive to technological self-sufficiency and military-civilian fusion. Based on Zhang’s resume, Xi may have found a highly qualified man for the job. Vice Premier Liu Guozhong is well-trained as an engineer. After obtaining an undergraduate education in “artillery shell” design and manufacturing in 1982, he later received a master’s degree at one of China’s most prestigious universities, Harbin Institute of Technology, which mainly trains engineers for the defense industry. Unlike Zhang Guoqing, however, Liu did not go into the defense industry. Instead, he switched to CCP policy research in Heilongjiang, his native province. After rotating through various positions including as local party chief and membership on national committees responsible for poverty reduction and domestic security, he became governor of Jilin in 2016 (a position he held for only a year) before he was appointed governor of Shaanxi in December 2017. In July 2020 Liu was promoted to be party chief of Shaanxi. As vice premier, Liu is likely to be responsible for agriculture and poverty alleviation. Among the new ministers, the experience of Jin Zhuanglong, minister of industry and information technology, merits special attention. His undergraduate major was missile design and he has spent his entire professional career in China’s aerospace industry. In 2004 he became deputy chief of the China National Space Administration (国家航天局) and he was appointed a deputy director of the Commission for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (国防科技工业委员会). In 2008, as president of the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac), he was put in charge of China’s large commercial jet project . The most reasonable assessment of the qualifications and experience of Xi’s new economic team is that it is mixed. In terms of formal education or technical training, this team can boast more stellar credentials. The presence of well-trained technocrats with extensive experience in the military-industrial complex may also be a plus for Xi’s security-centered economic agenda in general and for China’s ongoing efforts to accelerate military modernization in a more dangerous external environment in particular. However, the premier’s and the executive vice premier’s lack of national-level economic management experience could mean that they will need a period of learning. Other senior officials’ insufficient experience or expertise in their respective areas of responsibility, mainly the result of their rapid promotions during the last few years, may also indicate that it will take some time for them to gain the confidence necessary to make important decisions expeditiously. It may be too early to say much about how this team will perform. But the new team has exhibited relative caution after taking over in mid-March, as evidenced by the few new initiatives to change the (largely pessimistic) outlook for the Chinese economy. Besides the practical difficulties in reviving growth momentum in an economy ravaged by three years of Covid-19 and weakened by the decoupling initiated by the U.S. and its allies, the team’s relative inexperience may be an important explanation. A Team of Rivals Top officials on Xi’s economic team may be Xi loyalists, but they have few connections with one another. Judging by their portfolios and ages, it is reasonable to conclude that this team of loyalists is also a team of rivals, not only for favors from Xi but also for promotions to even higher positions in less than five years’ time when the party will convene its 21st congress (in the fall of 2027) and will pick a new PSC. The first and most obvious reason for Xi to pick a team of loyalists with no personal connections to one another is to ensure that he can continue to exert influence over economic policy through his own ties with each member of the team. In this intricate web of “checks and balances,” the four vice premiers, in particular Ding and He, who have strong ties to Xi, can help influence Premier Li Qiang and ensure that his policies do not veer off Xi’s desired path. If this is the case, rivalry and distrust may affect economic policy making in the coming years. One reasonable concern about cohesion in economic policy making is that the senior members may place Xi’s preferences (or at least his perceived preferences) above those of their colleagues. This could increase internal tensions and delay policy making as members of the economic team try to divine Xi’s intentions before taking a clear-cut position. Another potential problem is that, instead of delegating full authority to his new economic team, Xi may convey his policy preferences to the members of the team individually, thus creating confusion and rivalry among them. The third potential problem is that Xi may completely empower his new team in economic policy making, but only on one condition – that they fully implement his security-centered economic agenda. As such an agenda is likely to result in a far less dynamic or efficient economy and lead to new economic difficulties, an empowered team could be bad news for the economy. There is, however, a potential upside to this arrangement if Xi’s near-term political interests are aligned with those of the economic team: prioritizing an economic recovery. In this case, Xi would both delegate full authority to the team and direct it to pursue policies most likely to restore economic dynamism. Preliminary evidence since the end of the NPC sends mixed signals. Although the rhetoric of the new team is decidedly pro-growth, Beijing’s actions, such as expanding anti-corruption investigations in the critical financial sector, crackdown on Western consultancies and passing a revised espionage law that can potentially target foreign businessmen, seem to suggest that this team does not have any real autonomy or influence. Besides potential tensions arising from disagreements over policy, another likely source of rivalry is that five of the top six economic officials in the State Council (Li, Ding, Zhang, Liu, and Zheng) face uncertainty about their next appointments or promotions. Li Qiang, 63, may be a one-term premier if the implicit retirement age of 68 (which Xi has selectively ignored) is strictly enforced. Ideally, he probably wants to serve a second term starting in 2028 since all premiers since 1988, with the exception of Zhu Rongji (1998–2003) have served two terms. The second-best position would be to be head of the NPC. But he may also be asked to retire if Xi loses confidence in him. To a significant extent, Li Qiang’s future depends on how Ding, the executive vice premier, performs in his new position. Of all the vice premiers, Ding, 60, is best positioned to take over Li’s job in 2028. Zhang Guoqing, 58, is also a strong candidate for either the position of premier or the position of executive vice premier in 2028. Liu Guozhong, 60, is a plausible candidate for executive vice premier in five years’ time as well. Zheng Shanjie, the new NDRC chairman, is another promising candidate who might be appointed vice premier in 2028. What this somewhat speculative analysis shows is that Xi has picked an economic team for the next decade, not just for the next five years. The same thing, however, cannot be said of his plans for succession. Of Xi’s economic team, Ding Xuexiang is perhaps the strongest candidate to succeed Xi. Before the 20th Party Congress in mid-October 2022, Ding was seen as the most plausible candidate for the PSC’s fifth-ranked position – responsible for running the Secretariat of the Central Committee (a position both Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao and Xi himself held before rising to the top), but few expected him to become the next executive vice premier because his strengths are in party affairs, not economic management. By moving Ding onto the economic track, Xi seems to rule out Ding as a potential successor. Indeed, as all other members of the PSC will be close to or over the age of 70 in 2027 when the next party congress meets, none of them is a plausible candidate to be Xi’s successor. Notably, none of the newly minted Politburo members is under the age of 56 or young enough to be designated Xi’s successor in 2027 (typically, the party picks a successor aged 60 or under so he can serve two terms). What this suggests is that the make-up of the State Council and the Politburo implies Xi’s intention to assume a fourth term at the next party congress in 2027. Government Reorganization The CCP released a blueprint for reorganizing the party and government bureaucracies immediately after the NPC. It affects a large number of party and government bureaucracies, but the dominant theme of this round of reorganization is the strengthening of direct party control of the state bureaucracies. Reorganization accomplishes this goal by establishing party commissions overseeing entire functional areas (in this case, finance and science and technology) by transferring the policy making and administrative functions from a state agency to a party bureaucracy (such as replacing the State Council’s Office for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs with a “Party Center Office for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs” (中央港澳工作办公室) and by setting up a new party department overseeing several state bureaucracies, as in the case of the Central Social Affairs Department (中央社会工作部), which will supervise the National Public Complaints and Proposals Administration (国家信访局) as well as direct efforts to strengthen the party’s organizational presence at the grassroots levels. This round of reorganization also reflects Xi’s two top priorities – tightening party control of the financial sector and prioritizing technological self-sufficiency. 1. New Central Commissions According to the published reorganization plan, the party will set up two central commissions to oversee the financial sector. The first will be called the Central Finance Commission (中央金融委员会),which will replace the Financial Stability and Development Commission of the State Council (国务院金融稳定发展委员会). This commission’s chief responsibilities will include policy making and coordinating policy implementation in the financial sector. The second commission in the financial sector will be the Central Finance Work Commission (中央金融工作委员会). Its main responsibility will be to direct ideological, organizational, and political “construction” in the financial sector. In other words, this commission will play the role of political commissar. Despite the slightly different names of the two commissions, in actuality they are two parts of the same organization as they will “work together under the same roof” (合署办公). The party has also established a new central commission to oversee science and technology. The Central Commission of Science and Technology (中央科技委员会) will centralize party control of science and technology and will make key policies in this sector. It will also develop strategies and coordinate implementation in science, technology, and military-civilian fusion. It will rely mainly on the newly restructured Ministry of Science and Technology for execution. 2. Impact on the Financial Sector The most direct impact of the proposed reorganization of the financial sector is not the new commissions but the restructuring of the regional operations of the PBOC. and other administrative changes. In the 1990s, the party decided to increase the autonomy of the PBOC and eliminate local political influence by establishing a small number of regional branches to perform regulatory functions across several provinces. However, this round of reorganizations reverses the reform of the 1990s by restoring the provincial branches of the PBOC. This move is likely to allow provincial authorities to gain greater influence over the PBOC. The reorganization abolishes the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission and sets up a State General Administration of Financial Supervision (国家金融监督管理总局). The new body will take over the PBOC’s responsibility for supervising conglomerates in the financial sector. The China Securities Regulatory Commission appears to have been downgraded. It has lost its responsibility for investor protection to the newly formed State General Administration of Financial Supervision as well as its status as an independent commission. The reorganization makes it an agency directly administered by the State Council. Significant cuts in pay and benefits appear to be coming for those working in the PBOC and other regulatory commissions (including the State Administration of Foreign Exchange). The reorganization mandates that staff in these agencies (and their local and overseas branches) will be treated as civil servants, and their pay and benefits will be limited to the same standards as other civil servants. If implemented, this could result in a loss of experienced personnel from these agencies. 3. Revamped Ministry of Science and Technology The reorganization makes the Ministry of Science and Technology more focused on its core missions – mobilizing national resources for high-priority projects, improving innovation, and promoting utilization of the products of research. It will retain control over funding for basic and applied research, national labs, large projects, and regional technology clusters, but it will transfer less important tasks (such as planning for the development of science and technology in rural development and public health) to other ministries. It seems that the revamped Ministry of Science and Technology will gain status and importance as the main bureaucracy in charge of implementing the party’s program for technological self-sufficiency. Conclusion Judging by the qualifications of the individual members of Xi’s new economic team, it seems that some have more experience than others. But due to the lack of national-level experience among most of the senior members of the State Council, we should expect a longer-than-usual period of learning and adjustment. Economic policy making in the coming months will be gradual and cautious. Picking a team of loyalists can have mixed outcomes for Xi. He may be able to influence or control economic policy more directly through proxies. But we should not rule out the possibility, however small, that he might give his new team more autonomy and space since they share the same goal of reviving growth in the near term. Despite their close ties to Xi, rivalry among top economic policy-makers might also adversely affect economic policy making. What is clearer is the political message contained in the appointment of the economic team and the reorganization of the government announced after the NPC. Politics will continue to be in command. The profiles of the senior members of the economic team suggest that Xi has already assembled a group of strong candidates to take over the State Council in five years’ time. The contrast between a thick bench of candidates for top positions in the State Council and the absence of a single plausible candidate for CCP general secretary in the Politburo signals a highly likely fourth term for Xi at the next party congress in 2027. For the most part, the reorganization of the government seeks to further strengthen the party’s direct control of the state, reflecting continuation of the trend of “replacing the government with the party” (以党代政) and reversing the policy of “separating the party from the government” （党政分开）advocated by Deng Xiaoping and implemented under reformer Zhao Ziyang in the 1980s. Based on the experience of the Maoist period, during which no such separation existed, the re-concentration of power in the party will likely result in a less efficient government. About the Contributor Minxin Pei, editor of China Leadership Monitor, is Tom and Margot Pritzker '72 Professor of Government and George R. Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College. He is also Non-resident Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and he is an opinion columnist for Bloomberg. His forthcoming book, Guarding Dictatorship: China’s Surveillance State, will be published by Harvard University Press in Spring 2024.
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