How the Chinese Communist Party Plans to Reinforce Its Power
A recent leadership meeting hinted at what Xi Jinping’s “intensified” overhaul might look like.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: A recently concluded Chinese Communist Party leadership meeting offered some hints about an impending government restructure, the congressional committee on U.S.-China competition holds its first public hearing, and Canadian intelligence alleges that China interfered in the 2019 Canadian federal election.
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CCP Concludes Annual Second Plenum
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) concluded an annual plenary session—a meeting for top leadership—on Tuesday, leaving behind hints at what a promised reorganization of CCP and government structures could look like. Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for an “intensified” overhaul, and the readout from the second plenum spoke of aiming to “strengthen the leadership of the Communist Party.”
Details are so far scarce, however. They will likely become more apparent at the two sessions, the annual meeting of China’s rubberstamp parliament and advisory body, which open this weekend. There, close Xi ally Li Qiang will be confirmed as the successor of current Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
The motivation behind these changes will be keeping power firmly in the hands of the CCP. China’s political system mixes state power—nominally separate from the party—with CCP institutions. In the 1980s, then-top leader Deng Xiaoping and other economically minded leaders attempted to separate the two to facilitate a more technocratic civil service, but without ultimate success. Xi seems determined to undo even the existing level of separation.
One key move could be the creation of an internal affairs committee, as plausibly rumored in Hong Kong media. This committee would fall directly under the CCP’s Central Committee with authority over security and policing services. This is currently the remit of the State Council, China’s highest administrative authority, but everyone on the State Council is also a high-level party member—showing how difficult it is to separate the two.
The reshuffle of power may also involve an expanded role for Ding Xuexiang, one of the confidants Xi added to the party’s Central Committee last fall. As political scientist Wen-Ti Sung pointed out, there have been suggestions in Hong Kong and diaspora media that Ding will head up a new internal affairs committee. Wang Xiaohong, another Xi ally, could also be a candidate.
These potential changes seem to be aimed at reducing the clout of China’s top security agencies, reminding them of their ultimate subordination to the CCP—personified by Xi—and having them report to one of his close allies. In the early years of his power, Xi leaned on the party’s internal police committee to dispose of his political opponents and eventually made use of the Ministry of State Security as well. But Xi is keenly aware that the security agencies can be the machinery of coups as well as enforcers of discipline.
At the second plenum, Xi also spoke of the need for “deepening reform of the financial system, completing the party’s concentrated leadership over technology”—a predictable line of thinking. In part, this follows the general rule that the party must control everything, and to this end it seems as though party branches are going to get an even more expanded role in private companies. But there are a few likely secondary motives at play.
The first is greater regulation of financial technology, or fintech, a sector where China has become a global leader, but in ways that created dangerous bubbles and fraud leading to serious protests. Fintech has also shaken up the system of financial repression that China depended on as part of its growth model, whereby people’s savings were channeled into low-interest state-run banks that could then make cheap loans to government projects. China has already reined in new fintech projects, partially to target Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma.
Second, the United States and China are in a stark competition for technological dominance; because it’s an issue of national importance, everything must be directed from the top. In the 2000s, the CCP was happy to let companies fight it out and bless the winner. China’s actual technology successes stemmed from a mix of free-flowing money and relative freedom for the sector. Today, party leadership seems to believe that everything must be directed toward national ends, no matter how it frustrates innovation.
Internal power struggles also matter, and a third motive for the upcoming reforms could be to act as a vehicle for another round of purges, following those at the Big Fund, a failed venture to boost semiconductor manufacturing. The Chinese financial world is corrupt even by the standards of Chinese officialdom—at both the bottom and the top. Many other forms of corruption link back to it, which makes cleaning it up a convenient way for Xi to take down potential opponents.
One might ask: Hasn’t Xi already purged anyone he might fear? Dictators never run short of enemies, and Xi is in a paradoxical position that makes him likely to fear schemes against him. His signature domestic political project—China’s zero-COVID regime—just collapsed under pressure, but his extreme control of the organs of power has made it impossible to acknowledge that failure.
What We’re Following
Congressional China committee holds first hearing. The U.S. congressional committee focused on strategic competition with the CCP held its first public hearing on Tuesday. The committee attempted to strike a bipartisan tone in depicting China as a strategic opponent and existential threat to the United States. Although probably inevitable for a first hearing, the event was an opportunity for grandstanding rather than actual investigation or discussion.
The committee’s real work may come when it starts summoning potentially hostile witnesses rather than friendly ones. The U.S. finance sector has mounted a discernable push to get back to business as usual with China, and the U.S. Treasury Department has been reluctant to adopt tougher measures. The conflicts over that issue could be genuinely revealing or turn into a witch hunt.
As during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, diplomacy and cooperation to establish mutual norms of safety in areas from biosecurity to climate change remain important for the United States and China. But U.S. officials want to avoid being targeted simply for talking to their Chinese counterparts.
Canadian intel alleges Chinese interference. In Canada, revelations of Chinese interference in Canadian politics in 2019 have caused something of a tumult, with the Liberal Party government ardently denying its own intelligence agency’s alleged findings. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has spoken out against Chinese interference but insists that it did not substantially alter the 2019 federal election results. (The Liberals prevailed over their more hawkish Conservative opponents.)
Han Dong, a Liberal member of Parliament, is under particular scrutiny. According to intelligence, the Chinese Embassy allegedly bused older voters to the polls to support him and put pressure on international students to vote for him; while in office, Dong has avoided key votes on China. But it’s unclear whether Dong had any knowledge of the Chinese actions, and Trudeau and others have expressed concern he is being targeted because of his ethnicity.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• The United States Has Never Recovered From the Falklands War by Antonio De Loera-Brust
• Why the West Is Afraid of Ukraine’s Victory by Vasyl Cherepanyn
• China’s Farmland Is in Serious Trouble by Zongyuan Zoe Liu
Tech and Business
TikTok ban? The congressional committee hearing this week reflected the recent obsession in Washington with TikTok’s influence on American youth. (Trump administration official Matt Pottinger once described the app as giving “the Chinese Communist Party the ability to manipulate our social discourse.”) Evidence of actual Chinese interference via TikTok is minimal; Chinese media sites have accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, too.
Nonetheless, an attempt to ban TikTok in the United States passed an initial stage on Tuesday in the House of Representatives. In part, I suspect this all stems from Republican resentment that social media apps are supposedly biased against them.
Havana syndrome. Five U.S intelligence agencies released a joint report that concludes that so-called Havana syndrome—the cluster of vague symptoms among numerous U.S. government employees around the world—is unlikely to be the result of a secret weapon used by an opponent such as Russia or China. Although the symptoms of Havana syndrome were first experienced at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, employees of the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou reported symptoms in 2018, and China was often named as a potential culprit.
There was major political pressure inside the U.S. government to attribute the symptoms to enemy action, leading to some implausible claims. Diplomats were understandably sympathetic to their colleagues, and Congress passed a bill to help “victims affected by neurological attacks.” But psychosomatic symptoms—which now seem to be the most likely explanation—are painful, too, especially for staff serving in stressful environments.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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