Decoding Chinese Politics
Decoding Chinese Politics
Few things are more important for an authoritarian ruler like Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), than leadership over the domestic security apparatus. Known as “the knife” in Chinese political discourse, the institutions of law enforcement, intelligence work, and political discipline form one part of an unholy trinity of political control systems—together with “the gun” of the military and “the pen” of the propaganda outlets—that a CCP leader must dominate in order to call the shots in Beijing. Xi’s major push to “integrate development and security” in his second term both elevated the importance of national security relative to economic development in Chinese policymaking and supported his consolidation of personal authority over the internal security pillar of this trinity.
The CCP Central National Security Commission (CNSC) is the top institution devoted to security policy below the overall leadership of the party’s elite 24-member Politburo and the 7-member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). Xi established the CNSC in November 2013 to centralize and coordinate policy responses to domestic threats against the CCP regime and foreign threats against the Chinese nation. This move was a political effort by Xi to wrest control of the security apparatus from his rivals, a bureaucratic reform to reduce fragmentation and stove-piping between security agencies, and a governance push to improve the party’s resilience by embracing the extreme vigilance of “comprehensive national security.” Xi has served as CNSC Chairman since its first meeting in April 2014. The Premier of the State Council and the Chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), the two top-ranked PSC members after Xi, serve as CNSC Vice Chairmen, and the Director of the CCP General Office, currently also a PSC member, serves as Director of the CNSC Office. The CNSC is opaque even by Beijing’s standards, but its membership is thought to include around half of the Politburo and most of the Central Military Commission (CMC), making it one of the most powerful party commissions or leading groups. Local-level NSCs also exist in provinces, cities, and counties.
The CCP Central Comprehensive Law-Based Governance Commission (CCLBGC) is the party’s top policy coordination body for the development of China’s legal and regulatory systems. “Law-based governance” is the name for Xi’s massive campaign, begun at the Fourth Plenum in October 2014, to improve the party’s governance of China by further institutionalizing the operation of its powers through more legislation, better regulation, and a more reliable legal process. This concept emphasizes the greater use of laws to delimit the powers of officials, citizens, and firms throughout the country and establish clear, consistent, and enforceable procedures for governing in all spheres. Xi established the CCLBGC as part of his March 2018 party-state institutional reforms, and he has chaired the body since its first meeting in August 2018. The same three PSC members with leadership roles on the CNSC—the Premier, the NPCSC Chairman, and the First Secretary of the CCP Central Secretariat—serve as Deputy Directors, with the Secretary of the CCP Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission serving as Director and the Minister of Justice serving as Deputy Director of the CCLBGC Office.
The CCP Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (CPLAC) is a ministerial-level functional department of the CCP Central Committee that coordinates the politically sensitive work of law enforcement, social stability, and security services. The CPLAC Secretary is a Politburo member but not a PSC member—which was the case from 2002 to 2012—because Xi wanted to build his own authority and curtail the power of other leaders in these crucial spheres. The last CPLAC Secretary to sit on the PSC was Zhou Yongkang, an ally of Xi’s ousted rival Bo Xilai. Zhou, the most senior target of Xi’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign, was placed under investigation in late 2013 and sentenced to life in prison in June 2015. However, the CPLAC is still more influential than its ministerial rank suggests as it is led by a deputy national-level Politburo member. The CPLAC membership reflects the organizations that it oversees, with the Minister of Public Security serving as Deputy Secretary and ordinary members including the leaders of the Supreme People’s Court, Supreme People’s Procuratorate, Ministry of State Security, Ministry of Justice, CMC Political and Legal Affairs Commission, and People’s Armed Police (which is controlled by the CMC), plus a full-time ministerial-level CPLAC Secretary-General. The CPLAC sits atop a system of local PLACs in provincial-level and then county-level party committees.
The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) is a deputy national-level state institution that is the highest court for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and for Hong Kong cases that involve the National Security Law. The SPC is not an independent judicial branch of government because it answers to the National People’s Congress (NPC) administratively and is subservient to the CCP politically; furthermore, it lacks the power of constitutional review (although it can ask the NPCSC to review the constitutionality of a regulation). The SPC is the court of first instance for a handful of national cases, but it mostly hears appeals that come up through China’s local judicial system of Higher People’s Courts, Intermediate People’s Courts, and Primary People’s Courts, plus Courts of Special Jurisdiction such as Financial Courts, Internet Courts, and Intellectual Property Courts. Cases in all provincial-level regions except for Beijing, Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Shandong, and Tianjin are now handled by one of six SPC Circuit Courts that have the same level of final jurisdiction as the SPC. China has a civil law system, and the SPC’s reply to a case is binding only for that specific case, but it also issues judicial interpretations that are legally binding on courts at all levels. The SPC is also responsible for managing administration, enforcement, and supervision in courts of all levels. At the Two Sessions following a Party Congress, the PRC President nominates a candidate to serve a five-year term as President and Chief Justice of the SPC; the NPC must approve this selection. The SPC has seven Vice Presidents and many hundreds of lower-ranked judges.
The Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) is a deputy national-level state institution that serves as the chief public prosecutor of the PRC. Like the SPC, it is responsible to the NPC and subservient to the CCP. It investigates and prosecutes criminal cases, reviews lower-level prosecutions, and can appeal verdicts from lower-level courts and issue its own legal interpretations. Its clout was reduced somewhat in the party-state institutional reforms of March 2018, when Beijing reassigned the task of investigating corruption by government officials from the SPP to the new National Supervisory Commission. Like the SPC, at the Two Sessions following a Party Congress, the PRC President nominates an SPP Procurator-General for a five-year term, a selection that must then win NPC approval. The SPP has a ministerial-level Executive Deputy Procurator-General and three Deputy Procurators-General.
The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) is a constituent department of the State Council that manages most of the country’s police forces (the People’s Police). The MPS, in conjunction with local authorities, oversees provincial-level public security departments, which oversee county-level public security bureaus, which, in turn, oversee grassroots-level police stations that interface with citizens. The MPS is an unusually weighty ministry because it is the institution most directly responsible for maintaining public order and defusing social unrest on the Chinese streets, as well as duties including criminal investigations, detention centers, counterterrorism, counternarcotics, anti-smuggling, transport security, and traffic safety. It also administers the deputy ministerial-level National Immigration Administration (NIA) and has pioneered controversial policies such as smart surveillance technologies and overseas police stations to target political dissidents and absconded officials. The Minister of Public Security usually serves as a State Councilor, elevating them to the deputy national level and signaling the importance of the MPS relative to other ministries, on a par only with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of National Defense. The Minister of Public Security also serves as Director of the MPS Special Duty Bureau, which is responsible for protecting foreign VIPs, the Vice President, and deputy national-level leaders of the CPPCC, NPC, SPC, SPP, and State Council. MPS Deputy Ministers usually serve as NIA Director, Director of the Beijing Public Security Bureau, Director of the Legal System Bureau, or Director of the Political Security Bureau, which handles threats to party power, cracking down on political dissidents, combating supposed ethnic separatism and religious extremism, and MPS work related to Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan.
The Ministry of State Security (MSS) is a constituent department of the State Council that holds primary responsibility for intelligence, political security, and the secret services. Its activities include domestic intelligence, foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, geospatial intelligence, industrial espionage, the security of overseas Belt and Road Initiative projects in many countries, and the repression of dissidents in China and abroad through its own State Security Police. Increasingly, the MSS has also taken on a leading role in Chinese cyberespionage and intellectual property theft, commanding several “advanced persistent threat” hacker groups that have been indicted by the US government. It has broad powers under China’s National Intelligence Law to force cooperation from Chinese individuals, corporations, and government agencies. Like the MPS, the MSS has local branches in China’s provincial-, county-, and township-level governments. Both the Minister of State Security and the Minister of Public Security hold the top rank of Commissioner-General in the People’s Police.
The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) is a constituent department of the State Council in charge of legal affairs, including judicial administration, crime prevention, forensic teams, legal training, legal aid, regulating the legal profession, coordinating legislative work, reviewing local legislation, and overseeing administrative law enforcement as well as administrative reviews and responses. It also manages China’s national prisons, except Qincheng Prison in Beijing, a maximum-security facility administered by the MPS that holds the country’s highest-level political prisoners. The Minister of Justice is effectively China’s Attorney General. Although the MPS and MSS are powerful agencies with crucial security functions, the MOJ is a purely civilian institution that enjoys less political clout. However, its standing has increased somewhat in line with Xi’s focus on law-based governance, and since 2018, it has housed the General Office of the CCLBGC and absorbed the former State Council Legal Affairs Office.
The CCP Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) is a national-level party institution that is responsible for maintaining political discipline within the party by monitoring policy implementation, enforcing internal rules and directives, and leading the investigation and punishment of corruption and other malfeasance by party members. The CCDI is subordinate to the central party leadership, but Xi has strengthened its authority over the rest of the party bureaucracy, especially at the local level. A new CCDI is selected every five years at the Party Congress; the CCDI then holds a First Plenum to select its Standing Committee, Deputy Secretaries, and Secretary, who are then endorsed by the new CCP Central Committee at its own First Plenum. The current 20th CCDI, selected at the 20th Party Congress in October 2022, has 133 members, including an 18-person Standing Committee, eight Deputy Secretaries, and one Secretary. The CCDI Secretary is a PSC member, the CCDI Deputy Secretary who leads the National Supervisory Commission is a deputy national-level official, and the other CCDI Deputy Secretaries are ministerial-level officials. The CCDI sits atop a national system of Commissions for Discipline Inspection (CDIs) in local governments across the country.
The CCDI Secretary serves as Head of the CCP Central Leading Group for Inspection Work (CLGIW), a policy coordination body that manages the party’s practice of sending “inspection teams” into party organs, state ministries, local governments, and state-owned enterprises to monitor political discipline. The LSGIW was founded in 2009, but under Xi’s leadership, it has become a more important body with stronger control over Central Inspection Teams, which have also expanded in number and number of targets. The Director of the CCP Organization Department and the Director of the National Supervisory Commission serve as Deputy Heads, and the CLGIW office is located within the CCDI. Each provincial-level local party committee has its own leading group for inspection work led by the provincial CDI secretary.
The National Supervisory Commission (NSC) is a deputy national-level institution of the PRC that is co-located with the CCDI. It was established as part of the March 2018 party-state institutional reforms as a government super-agency to monitor policy implementation, investigate official malfeasance, and decide administrative sanctions among public servants, regardless of whether they are CCP members. The NSC absorbed the former Ministry of Supervision and the former National Bureau of Corruption Prevention under the State Council. The NPC appoints the NSC Director for a five-year term at the Two Sessions following each Party Congress. The NSC Director then nominates seven Deputy Directors and seven members, who are appointed by the NPC. The first NSC Director, who served from 2018 to 2023, was a Politburo member, but the current Director is not a member despite holding a seat on the powerful CCP Central Secretariat. The NSC Director serves concurrently as the CCDI Executive Deputy Director, demonstrating the subservience of the NSC to the CCDI. The NSC also leads the work of supervisory commissions at all levels of local government.
The National Audit Office (NAO) is a ministerial-level constituent department of the State Council that is responsible for auditing the finances of the central government and of provincial governments and public institutions that receive central funds. It also conducts audits of natural resources and environmental performance. The NAO has played a key role under Xi’s anti-corruption campaign in detecting financial malpractice and official malfeasance. In the 2018 institutional reforms, the NAO acquired powers from other government agencies to inspect major projects, state-owned enterprises, central budgets, and central revenues and expenditures. The importance of a strong audit system for political discipline and effective governance was underscored by Xi’s creation that same year of a CCP Central Audit Commission (CCPCAC), of which he is Chairman and the Premier and CCDI Secretary are Vice Chairmen. The commission has its office in the NAO, and the NAO Auditor-General serves as its Director.
The CCP Central Social Work Department (CSWD) is a new ministerial-level functional department of the CCP Central Committee that was announced as part of the party-state institutional reforms of March 2023. It is the first new functional department since the CPLAC was restored to this status in 1990. The CSWD is responsible for handling citizen complaints, collecting citizen suggestions, coordinating party work in grassroots governance and capacity building, leading the party work and institutional transformation of national industry associations and chambers of commerce, and guiding party building in mixed-ownership enterprises, nonpublic enterprises, “new economic organizations” (such as private firms, foreign-invested firms, joint-stock cooperatives, and sole traders), “new social organizations” (such as community groups and nongovernmental organizations), and “new employment groups” (such as gig workers and online influencers). The CSWD will sit atop a new central-local system of social work departments in provincial-, city-, and county-level party committees. The new department will provide organizational muscle and institutional advocacy to bolster Xi’s efforts to extend the party’s presence and influence in the nonstate economy and at the most basic levels of neighborhood governance. The CSWD also exercises leadership over the National Public Complaints and Proposals Administration (NPCPA), a deputy ministerial-level organ that is technically under the State Council and handles citizen “petitions” to oppose or urge actions at any level of government. This shifts oversight of China’s citizen feedback system away from the state and to the party, giving Xi more direct control of crucial information for gauging grassroots public opinion and potentially avoiding a repeat of the zero-COVID mass protests of November 2022.
Xi’s expanding definition of national security means that many more government institutions now ostensibly have a role in security policy. One prominent example is the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) that was founded in 2014 as the country’s Internet censor and which has evolved into a powerful policymaker, regulator, and enforcer for Chinese cybersecurity (see “Technology” section).
Xi Jinping (June 1953) is the single most important policymaker in the security space because of his leadership of the Politburo and PSC, as well as the CNSC, CCLBGC, and CCPCAC. His hold on the security services, a key aspect of his grip on overall political power, is supplemented by having PSC allies including Li Qiang, Zhao Leji, Cai Qi, and Li Xi serve as his deputies on these central commissions.
Liu Haixing (April 1963) is the ministerial-level Executive Deputy Director of the CNSC General Office. He is a key bureaucratic powerbroker in national security policymaking at home and abroad. Previously, he was a career diplomat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) from 1985 until 2017, where he specialized in French and European affairs, including a stint as a Minister in the Chinese Embassy in France from 2009 to 2012. He left MOFA as an Assistant Foreign Minister, becoming a Deputy Director of the CNSC General Office in March 2017 before winning promotion to ministerial rank in July 2022. Liu, like Xi, is the “princeling” son of a senior official, which may explain how he came to win Xi’s trust to hold this especially sensitive position. His father, Liu Shuqing, was a senior diplomat who served as a Deputy Foreign Minister from 1984 to 1989 and then as Secretary-General of the CCP Central Foreign Affairs Leading Group and Director of the State Council Foreign Affairs Office from 1989 to 1991.
Chen Wenqing (January 1960) is a Politburo member who serves as the CPLAC Secretary. Chen is from Sichuan Province, and after graduating from law school, he spent most of his early career in local public security bureaus before leading the provincial state security department and people’s procuratorate. Chen Wenqing was celebrated for his role in ending the run of two murderous fugitives while he was a District Police Chief in 1988. Chen was transferred to Fujian in 2006, where he worked as CCDI Secretary and then Deputy Party Secretary, serving on the provincial CCP standing committee with Xi’s confidante He Lifeng (now a Vice Premier) and close to Xi allies Wang Xiaohong (now the Minister of Public Security), Zheng Shanjie, and Zhuang Rongwen. Immediately after the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, Chen was promoted to a Deputy Secretary role in the CCDI, where he helped take out Xi’s political rivals in the early years of the anti-corruption campaign, working alongside other officials whom Xi has since promoted into senior leadership roles. Chen was promoted again to MSS Party Secretary in 2015, then concurrently appointed Minister of State Security in 2016, adding the roles of CNSC Executive Deputy Director and CPLAC member in 2018. He served in these positions until his elevation to the Politburo in October 2022. Chen is a loyal Xi supporter and convened a CPLAC meeting during the zero-COVID protests of November 2022 to affirm that the security services would “resolutely crack down” on threats to social order.
Wang Xiaohong (July 1957) is the State Councilor who serves as Minister of Public Security and CPLAC Deputy Secretary. He is the second-ranked security specialist after Chen Wenqing, and, like Chen, he has a seat on the seven-person CCP Central Secretariat. A native of the Fujianese capital, Wang worked in the Fuzhou police force for over two decades, rising from an ordinary policeman to city police chief. He was promoted repeatedly during the tenure of first Xi and then Xi’s confidante He Lifeng as Party Secretary of Fuzhou. Xi likely helped promote Wang to serve as a Deputy Director of the Fujian MPS a few months before Xi left for Zhejiang in November 2002. Wang stagnated in this role for nine years, until a horizontal transfer allowed him to gain valuable local leadership experience in Xi’s power base of Xiamen and then in the provincial-level governments of Henan and Beijing. He was made an MPS Deputy Minister and Director of the Beijing MPS in 2016, ministerial-level MPS Executive Deputy Minister in 2018, MPS Party Secretary and CPLAC member in November 2021, and finally Minister in June 2022. Wang is a trusted aide of Xi, personally leading an MPS special work group to crack down on an alleged ring of disloyal security cadres led by former MPS Deputy Minister Sun Lijun.
Zhang Jun (October 1956) is President and Chief Justice of the SPC and a CPLAC member. He is one of the most experienced legal officials in the country, having served as the top leader of the MOJ, SPP, and SPC. He earned an undergraduate law degree at Jilin University (where he likely knew Politburo member Li Hongzhong, who studied there at the same time, through the university’s CCP activities) and a master’s degree in criminal law at Renmin University of China in Beijing. He climbed the SPC system as a legal secretary and then judge for almost two decades, working as a Vice President from 2001 to 2003 and again from 2005 to 2012, with a stint as Deputy Minister for Justice in between. In the Xi era, Zhang served as a CCDI Deputy Secretary from 2012 to 2017 (with Chen Wenqing and Liu Jinguo), Minister of Justice from 2017 to 2018, and SPP Procurator-General from 2018 to March 2023. Zhang does not have political ties to Xi from earlier in his career, although he clearly provided loyal political service at the CCDI at the start of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. His continued promotion reflects Xi’s desire to improve China’s law-based governance by elevating genuine legal experts to leadership positions.
Ying Yong (November 1957) is Procurator-General of the SPP and a CPLAC member. Ying is a native of Taizhou City in Zhejiang, where he spent the first 15-odd years of his career as a police officer and local public security official. He rose through the public security ranks in Shaoxing City and then became a deputy in the Zhejiang public security department, where he took a leading role in significant crackdowns against smuggling and organized crime. After Xi became Party Secretary of Zhejiang in 2002, by which time Ying had completed graduate studies in law, he was promoted to serve as a Deputy Secretary of the Zhejiang CCDI and then as President of Zhejiang’s top court, where he led efforts to improve access to and reduce corruption in the legal system. The month after Xi ended his brief stint as Party Secretary of Shanghai in October 2007, Ying was transferred to the lead the top court in the politically influential metropolis. In April 2013, shortly after Xi became paramount leader, Ying was promoted to the Shanghai CCP standing committee. He eventually served as Mayor of Shanghai from January 2017 to February 2020, when Xi dispatched (and promoted) him to take over as Party Secretary of the besieged province of Hubei in the middle of the first COVID-19 outbreak. Ying appeared to be a Politburo contender until he was unexpectedly sidelined from this leadership role to an NPC committee in April 2022. That move is usually a sure sign of impending retirement, but in September, Ying was made Zhang Jun’s heir-apparent, another example of Xi’s promotion of experienced (and politically loyal) legal and security experts.
Chen Yixin (September 1959) is Minister of State Security, a Deputy Director of the CCLBGC Office, and a CPLAC member. Chen is from Lishui City in Zhejiang, where he worked as a local cadre before spending a decade in the general office of the Zhejiang CCP committee, rising to become its Deputy Director from 2000 to 2003. In the latter year, Xi promoted Chen to Deputy Secretary-General of the Zhejiang CCP committee, a high-level political secretary role that he held until 2011, working directly under Secretary-General Li Qiang. Chen then gained experience as a local leader in the Zhejiang cities of Jinhua and Wenzhou, before Xi brought him to Beijing in 2015 to be the Special Deputy Director of what is now the General Office of the Central Comprehensively Deepening Reforms Commission. After serving as Deputy Party Secretary of Hubei, Chen Yixin became CPLAC Secretary-General in 2018, in which capacity he led a two-year purge for Xi that felled former Minister of Justice Fu Zhenghua and former Deputy Minister of Public Security Sun Lijun. He became Minister of State Security in October 2022. Chen can be expected to enforce a hard line against external opponents of the CCP and internal opponents of Xi’s leadership.
He Rong (October 1962) is Minister of Justice, a Deputy Director of the CCLBGC Office, and a CPLAC member. One of only two female ministers, she holds a bachelor’s, master’s (from the University of Technology Sydney), and doctorate in law. She worked in the Beijing municipal court system from 1984 to 2011 before promotion to the SPC system, where she was a Vice President from 2013 to 2017. Her upward trajectory was confirmed when she was rotated to the Shaanxi provincial CCP standing committee, serving as Deputy Party Secretary from 2018 to 2020. Before her MOJ appointment, she served as the ministerial-level SPC Executive Vice President from 2020 to 2023, winning a seat on the CCP Central Committee for the first time at the 20th Party Congress. He lacks strong ties to Xi, although she was a rising star in the local judiciary when Xi’s ally Wang Qishan was Mayor of Beijing in the 2000s. Her appointment should be seen as a sign of rising professionalization in China’s legal governance.
Yin Bai (April 1969) replaced Chen Yixin as the ministerial-level CPLAC Secretary-General in March 2023, having served as a CPLAC Deputy Secretary-General since July 2022. Unusually for a high-ranking security official, Yin is not a member of the Han ethnic majority; rather, he belongs to the Nakhi ethnic minority that hail from Yunnan, although his place of ancestry is reported as Beijing. Yin studied and worked in Yunnan as a management academic, government leader, local judge, political and legal affairs official, and provincial prosecutor until 2016. He was then in Qinghai until his CPLAC appointment, working as head of the provincial PLAC and eventually as Deputy Party Secretary as well. However, unlike Chen during the last five years, Yin is not an alternate member of the CCP Central Committee, indicating that the role is less influential now that Chen has left. Yin has significant experience in ethnic governance: he has worked in the Yi, Tibetan, and Mongolian Autonomous Regions and holds a doctorate in ethnic politics and public administration, suggesting that minority groups will remain a top internal security focus for Xi.
Two uniformed military leaders, Wang Renhua (1962), Secretary of the CMC Political and Legal Affairs Commission, and Wang Chunning (March 1963), Commander of the People’s Armed Police (PAP), are the other members of the CPLAC. Wang Renhua is a Vice Admiral in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy who entered the CPLAC with his current position in December 2019 after serving in leadership roles in the political work and political discipline sections of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, the PLA Ground Forces, and the East Sea Fleet. Wang Chunning is a General in the PLA Ground Forces who spent most of his career with what is now the PLA 72nd Group Army in Huzhou, Zhejiang Province, where he overlapped with Xi’s tenure as Party Secretary of Zhejiang from 2002 to 2007. In 2016, Xi appointed Wang Chunning as Commander of the PLA Beijing Garrison, which is responsible for security in the national capital, a sign of deep trust in his political loyalty. He became PAP Commander in 2020. The PAP, under the command of the CMC, is an armed force dedicated to domestic security and quelling internal unrest.
Li Xi (October 1956) is the PSC member who serves as CCDI Director. He worked his way up the ladder of local government leadership in his native Gansu before a promotion to the Shaanxi provincial CCP standing committee in 2004. There, he served as Party Secretary of the revolutionary heartland of Yan’an from 2006 to 2011, working directly under Xi ally and then provincial leader from 2007. Li joined first joined the Central Committee as an alternate at the 17th Party Congress in 2007, and his promotion of CCP history in Yan’an reportedly impressed Xi during trips to his ancestral homeland (including special attention to the story of Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, and that of Xi himself as a sent-down youth during the Cultural Revolution in the nearby village of Liangjiahe). Li is also thought to have deeper ties to Xi through his time in the mid-1980s working as a political secretary to Li Ziqi, then Party Secretary of Gansu, who was a friend of Xi Zhongxun from their revolutionary days. After Shaanxi, Li was Organization Head and Deputy Party Secretary in Shanghai, where he worked with several other close Xi allies from 2011 to 2014, before serving as Governor and then Party Secretary of Liaoning between 2014 and 2017 and as Party Secretary of Guangdong during his first term on the Politburo from 2017 to 2022. An unusual aspect of Li’s promotion to CCDI Director is that he ranks seventh in the PSC, right behind Executive Vice Premier Ding Xuexiang; these positions were reversed during Xi’s first two terms, suggesting that Xi now sees anti-corruption as a relatively less pressing priority for elite politics.
Liu Jinguo (April 1955) became Director of the NSC in March 2023 and a member of the CCP Central Secretariat in October 2022. From a poor family in Qinhuangdao, he worked in his native Hebei until 2005, mostly in local branches of the MPS and CCDI, reaching the provincial CCP standing committee. Liu Jinguo was a Deputy Minister of Public Security from 2005 to 2015, where he was praised by state media for his incorruptibility and his prominent role in the on-the-ground responses to the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake and the 2010 Xingang Port oil spill. He served as a CCDI Deputy Secretary from 2014 to 2022 and an NSC Deputy Director from 2018 to 2023. These roles put him in regular contact with Xi allies including Wang Qishan, Zhao Leji, Chen Wenqing, and Li Shulei. The strength of Liu’s historical ties to Xi are unclear: he was a full-time student at the Hebei Provincial Party School in Shijiazhuang from 1983 to 1985, when both Xi and his retired ally Li Zhanshu were party secretaries of two urban counties in the city. Liu is a trusted operator, but his exclusion from the Politburo suggests a renewed focus on the CCDI over the NSC.
Hou Kai (April 1962) heads the NAO as its Auditor-General. He is a career auditor who started at the NAO right out of college in 1984 and worked there until 2013, when he had achieved the position of Deputy Auditor-General. He worked with several key Xi allies in the Shanghai municipal party as head of its discipline inspection commission from 2013 to 2016, then served as a Deputy Secretary working under top Xi aide Ding Xuexiang in the new CCP Central and State Organs Working Committee from 2018 to 2020, at which point he was promoted to Auditor-General. He has been a member of the CCDI Standing Committee since 2012, showing the close connection between auditing work and Xi’s control over political discipline investigations. Hou is also Chairman of the United Nations Board of Auditors.
Wu Hansheng (April 1963) is the first CSWD Director. He is a trained engineer who worked in the former Ministry of Machine-Building Industry before beginning a long association with the former CCP State Organs Work Committee, which managed party affairs in state institutions, and its successor, the CCP Central and State Organs Work Committee. However, Wu spent most of the 2000s working in local governments, including stints under Xi allies Li Xi in Liaoning Province and Lou Yangsheng in Shanxi Province. Wu is a ministerial-level official, suggesting that the CSWD will have similar bureaucratic weight as the International Liaison Department—not more influential CCP agencies like the Organization Department and Propaganda Department, which are led by Politburo members.
Xi has significantly elevated security as a core objective in all areas of Chinese policymaking (see also “Foreign Affairs”). His authoritative report to the 20th Party Congress in October 2022 specified that national security should “permeate every aspect and the whole process” of governance, introduced a top-level goal for the party to “comprehensively strengthen the national security system” by 2035, and identified several security concerns and “party members and cadres with weak commitment” as central challenges that the CCP must address in the next five years. Congress reports usually follow a rigid topical structure, but this most recent edition added a new section devoted to national security, sending a strong signal about its rising priority and the enhanced role of Xi’s personal security czars in Beijing.
Xi’s second term saw him shift his campaign to control the security bureaucracy — which began in his first term with purges of officials associated with ex-security czar Zhou Yongkang and ex-leader Jiang Zemin — into a higher gear. The campaign took off with the launch in July 2020 of a Mao-style “education and rectification” campaign within the CPLAC, led by Xi acolyte Chen Yixin. Official media accounts compared Xi’s campaign with the Yan’an Rectification Movement of 1942 to 1945, when Mao launched sweeping internal purges to establish his unquestioned authority as party leader. Xi’s purge proceeded at breakneck speed, bringing down high-ranking officials including Sun Lijun, Fu Zhenghua, and Shanghai police chief Gong Dao’an for corruption and alleged anti-CCP political plots. These arrests eliminated the last significant figures associated with Meng Jianzhu, a crony of late paramount leader Jiang Zemin, and paved the way for Xi to install allies across the security system.
Xi’s success at reorganizing CCP institutions and appointing the leaders of China’s security, intelligence, and legal apparatuses will advance the “securitization” of policymaking that has developed during his leadership. Xi’s concept of “comprehensive national security,” introduced in 2014, has been dramatically expanded to include at least 16 domains: military, territorial, technological, ecological, societal, polar, cyber, space, cultural, political, economic, biological, deep sea, resource, nuclear, and overseas interests. Xi has also sought to weave a seamlessly integrated fabric of mutually reinforcing security, legal, and disciplinary frameworks under his comprehensive national security umbrella.
Xi’s consolidated security system is likely to oversee further tightening of social controls — in both the physical and digital realms — as well as the promotion of a political and social narrative that China is besieged by spies, saboteurs, and “hostile foreign forces” seeking to overthrow the CCP regime through a “color revolution.” That, combined with Xi’s harping on an ever-expanding list of “risks” confronting the regime from “changes unseen in a century” in both the domestic and external arenas, suggests a more paranoid and sharper CCP regime during Xi’s third term and beyond.
A critical question for the future of China’s security system is whether slowing economic growth and more repressive policies will create larger social disturbances, as the “Blank Paper Protests” against Xi’s zero-COVID policies in many cities in November 2022 show that political protests are not a thing of the past. More contentious state-society relations could present new threats to Xi’s political power and affect the political influence of his security czars, depending on how well they contain such threats.
A notable feature of Xi’s new, much broader definition of national security is the more regular transfer of officials within and between the various parts of the regime’s control bureaucracy. Particularly notable is the phenomenon of officials with experience in the CCDI being moved into security roles and vice versa. These bureaucracies were once rigidly stove-piped and isolated from each other; the move toward greater cross-fertilization between control agencies is arguably improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the CCP’s security enterprise. The rising emphasis during Xi’s tenure on the CCDI’s anti-corruption mission and its role as the guarantor of ideological orthodoxy and policy implementation — in areas such as economic policy and financial policy — also serves to enhance the natural affinity between the institution and more traditional security agencies.
The work of political discipline organs like the CCDI in improving the party’s self-governance is critical to Xi’s ambition for the party to recognize, resolve, and learn from its past errors and achieve a perpetual state of “self-revolution.” Xi believes that self-revolution is a key reason why the party overcame past challenges and survived its first hundred years. He has described the party’s fight against corruption and ill-discipline as a “forever journey.” A stronger focus on discipline and security could aid Xi’s ability to push through difficult reforms, but it could also raise the short-term risk of overly rigid policy implementation and the longer-term risk of local stasis on controversial policies that risk social instability.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has a long political tradition in the development and maintenance of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. At watershed moments — such as the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976 and the crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen protests — the PLA has played a decisive role as a party army that functions as the ultimate guarantor of CCP rule. When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he sensed that the CCP was facing another moment of crisis, but this time the PLA was part of the problem rather than the solution. Xi has since executed a radical reform of the political culture, organizational structure, and force posture of the PLA. In so doing, he has emerged as the most powerful civilian leader of the Chinese military since Deng Xiaoping, a bulwark of his rulership of an authoritarian state. These reforms have also helped Xi improve the PLA’s capabilities—especially in the air, sea, missile, and information domains—and coincided with stronger shows of military force in areas such as Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the China-India border, raising regional and global concerns about Xi’s military intentions.
The Central Military Commission (CMC) is China’s top national-level defense leadership and military command center. It is responsible for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the People’s Armed Police (PAP), and the Militia of China. Technically, there are two CMCs: that of the CCP, which is selected by the party’s Central Committee at its First Plenum immediately following each Party Congress, and that of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which is selected by the National People’s Congress (NPC) at its first meeting in March following a Party Congress. However, the two CMCs are identical and exist in parallel simply so that the CMC can formally oversee defense matters in both the party and the state. The CMC is an extremely opaque institution, and its meetings are almost never publicized.
In 2017, Xi reduced the size of the CMC from 11 to seven members as part of his reforms aimed at centralizing power and streamlining decision-making in the military. The CCP General Secretary serves as the CMC Chairman, the top position in the military hierarchy—an essential source of power for the country’s paramount leader. Xi’s leadership of the CMC underscores a critical difference between the PLA and many Western militaries. While the US Army, for example, exists to serve the United States of America, the PLA exists not to serve the People’s Republic of China but the CCP. It is a party army, not a national army, and ultimate authority over military decisions rests with the CCP leadership.
The two CMC Vice Chairmen are PLA generals who serve as the only military representatives on the CCP’s elite 24-member Politburo. This arrangement has persisted since 1997, when Liu Huaqing ended his five-year term as the last PLA general to hold a seat on the top Politburo Standing Committee. The first-ranked Vice Chairman usually serves as Head of the CMC Leading Group for Inspection Work (CMCLGIW), which oversees political discipline inspections throughout the PLA. The top three CMC officials also lead the CMC Leading Group for National Defense and Military Reform (CLGMR), a policy coordination body that oversees ongoing military reforms. The CMC Chairman serves as Head of this group, the first-ranked Vice Chairman as Executive Deputy Head, and the second-ranked Vice Chairman as a Deputy Head, with other members of the CMC filling out the ranks.
The four other CMC members are senior PLA generals who serve as Minister of National Defense, Chief of Staff of the CMC Joint Staff Department (CMCJSD), Director of the CMC Political Work Department (CMCPWD), and Secretary of the CMC Commission for Discipline Inspection (CMCCDI). The inclusion of the last three roles on the CMC reflects Xi’s efforts to transform the PLA into a US-style “joint” force with integrated command of the different services, to ensure the military’s absolute loyalty to the CCP (and to Xi’s leadership), and to stamp out the rampant corruption that undermined China’s military readiness in the past.
Xi’s military reforms involved a significant reorganization of the CMC’s institutional structure below the seven-member top leadership, going from four general departments — General Staff, General Political, General Logistics, and General Armaments — to 15 smaller departments. The general departments had become bloated organs and hotbeds for corruption; the reforms were designed to create more focused and agile entities and to disperse bureaucratic power. The three new departments represented on the CMC—Joint Staff, Political Work, and Discipline Inspection—rank at the “theater level,” which is above seven “deputy theater-level” departments and five “army-level” departments. However, the CMC General Office (CMCGO), a deputy theater-level department that handles administrative operations and information flows, has emerged as an important center of Xi’s power in the CMC.
In 2016, Xi elevated and consolidated the existing joint command institutions to create a theater-level CMC Joint Command Center (CMCJCC), the highest combat command institution in the PLA. It is directly under the CMC and led by Xi as China’s inaugural Commander in Chief. Formally, however, under the PRC Constitution, it is Xi’s role as President that gives him the power to declare war.
The CMC oversees the PLA’s five service branches: the PLA Ground Force (PLAGF); the PLA Navy (PLAN); the PLA Air Force (PLAAF); the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), which controls China’s conventional and nuclear missiles; and the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), which handles operations in the space, cyber, electronic, political, and psychological domains. Xi’s 2015 reforms created the PLAGF as a separate service branch to reduce the influence of the land forces, which had traditionally dominated PLA decision-making, by putting them on the same administrative footing as the other branches. The same reforms created the PLARF out of the old Second Artillery Corps and established the PLASSF to focus military efforts on fighting the next generation of “information warfare” in the cyber, intelligence, and space domains. The service branches enjoy the same theater-level rank as the top three CMC departments, but the reforms took them out of the operational chain of command and made them responsible mainly for planning, training, and equipping their respective forces. Each service branch has a split leadership structure comprising a commander, who oversees military operations, and a political commissar, who is a uniformed officer and party cadre in charge of political discipline and ideological instruction. These military commanders and political commissars usually hold a seat on the CCP Central Committee.
Xi reorganized the PLA from seven military regions into five joint-operation theater commands, which report directly to the CMC and have a protocol order that corresponds to the political importance of their geographic missions: the Eastern Theater Command, headquartered in Nanjing and including the Taiwan Strait and East China Sea; the Southern Theater Command, headquartered in Guangzhou and including the South China Sea and Hong Kong; the Western Theater Command, headquartered in Chengdu and including Xinjiang, Tibet, and the China-India border; the Northern Theater Command, headquartered in Shenyang and including the borders with Russia and North Korea; and the Central Theater Command, headquartered in Beijing and focusing on capital defense and military reserve.
This shake-up was designed to transform the PLA from a “big army” military focused on ground force operations to a more “joint” military that de-prioritizes the army and integrates its capabilities with stronger naval, air, missile, and cyber forces. The CMC commands most military units of the service branches through theater commands; each command controls a deputy theater-level branch of the PLAGF, PLAN, and PLAAF (except for the Western and Central Theater Commands, which lack PLAN branches). These commands report to both their theater command and their service branch, but the theater commands lead on operational control. Theater commands are led by both a military commander and a political commissar, almost all of whom hold seats on the CCP Central Committee.
This dual command structure is replicated within theater commands in army-level provincial military districts, which serve as national defense mobilization units under the leadership of the deputy theater-level CMC Defense Mobilization Department (CMCDMD). Three politically sensitive provincial military districts are combat forces that administratively report directly to PLAGF headquarters (while still taking operational orders from their theater commands): the army-level PLA Beijing Garrison; the deputy theater-level PLA Tibet Military District; and the deputy theater-level PLA Xinjiang Military District, which includes the army-level PLA Southern Xinjiang Military District (SXMD) headquartered in Kashgar. The SXMD is also responsible for defending Ali Prefecture in Tibet, which abuts the Galwan Valley where Chinese and Indian forces fought a deadly melee in June 2020, and so SXMD commanders have been deeply involved with Sino-Indian de-escalation negotiations ever since.
The CMC has also been directly responsible for the People’s Armed Police since 2018, when a reorganization took authority away from provincial party secretaries and gave Xi direct control of all China’s armed forces. The PAP is a theater-level paramilitary force that operates nationwide, although its resources are concentrated in areas of greater social unrest in Western China. It is responsible for safeguarding internal security if civilian responses and resources prove inadequate, encompassing activities such as riot control, counterterrorism, hostage rescue, explosives removal, assisting law enforcement in especially dangerous activities, and providing security for major events, core infrastructure, and important facilities (including foreign embassies). During wartime, the CMC can mobilize the PAP, which has up to one million personnel, to support the PLA, which has about two million personnel. The China Coast Guard (CCG) — responsible for maritime security, territorial patrols, law enforcement, anti-smuggling efforts, search and rescue operation, and some gray-zone operations — operates as a service branch of the PAP.
Significant uncertainty surrounds the PLA's intelligence units, which have also been substantially restructured under Xi’s leadership since 2015. The principal military intelligence organization, formerly the Second Department of the old PLA General Staff Department, has become the Intelligence Bureau of the CMCJSD. The former signals intelligence (Third Department) and electronic warfare (Fourth Department) units, which were also under the General Staff Department, have meanwhile been reconstituted under the PLASSF as its Network Systems Department. The former General Political Department’s Liaison Department (GPDLD), responsible for outreach and intelligence-gathering among foreign and Taiwanese elites, has become the CMCPWD Liaison Bureau.
The CMC directly oversees three academic institutions. The deputy theater-level PLA Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) in Beijing is the country’s premier research institution focused on domestic and foreign military affairs. It publishes a quasi-authoritative guide to PLA doctrine known as the Science of Military Strategy, and its personnel play key roles in supplying information, drafting documents, and shaping messages for PLA leaders. The deputy theater-level PLA National Defense University (NDU) in Beijing is the premier military education and training institution in China and publishes its own version of the Science of Military Strategy. The army-level PLA National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) in Changsha is a public research university that focuses on developing technology for military applications. The US government sanctioned the NUDT by putting it on the Entity List in 2015.
The top military-related state institution is the National Defense Mobilization Commission (NDMC), a policy coordination body between the State Council and the CMC that is responsible for planning, managing, and regulating the use of civilian resources for military operations. The Premier serves as Chairman and the Minister of National Defense and the State Council Secretary-General serve as Vice Chairmen. The NDMC General Office, however, is in the CMCDMD, showing that the bureaucratic muscle of the commission is firmly within the military rather than the government apparatus.
The NDMC, under the leadership of and in coordination with the CMC, oversees the Militia of China, which is a reserve force of approximately eight million troops for the PLA. The militia’s responsibilities include providing logistical support to the PLA in preparing for war, defending national borders, maintaining public order, and contributing to economic production. The Maritime Militia of China supports the operations of the PLAN and CCG, especially in gray-zone activities in the South China Sea.
The Ministry of National Defense (MND) is one of the 26 constituent department of the State Council. The MND’s main purpose is to conduct military-to-military diplomacy and hold press briefings; it has no operational authority and effectively serves as a foreign liaison body for the CMC. However, the Minister of National Defense is usually a PLA general who holds deputy national rank, a notch above most other ministers, through concurrent positions as a CMC member and a State Councilor.
The Ministry of Veterans Affairs (MVA) is the other constituent department of the State Council with direct relevance to China’s military. It is responsible for the management and provision of services to at least 57 million military veterans, as well as retired firefighters and search and rescue personnel. These duties include overseeing the ideological discipline of this politically sensitive group; highlighting the dedication and contributions of veterans to the CCP; managing the commemoration of official martyrs; assisting veterans with the transition to civilian life; aiding injured and disabled veterans; and administering benefits related to social welfare, medical treatment, employment training, and incentives for entrepreneurship. The MVA was created in 2018 through the amalgamation of functions previously performed by various CMC departments and other ministries. The Minister of Veterans Affairs holds standard ministerial rank.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) sponsors seven universities to foster science and technology partnerships with the PLA. These “Seven Sons of National Defense” are Beihang University and Beijing Institute of Technology in Beijing; Harbin Engineering University and Harbin Institute of Technology in Harbin; Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Nanjing University of Science and Technology in Nanjing; and Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an. For more details on military technology and civil-military fusion, please see the “Technology” section.
The State Council’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) oversees several enormous state-owned enterprises that form the backbone of China’s national defense industry, whose top leaders hold deputy minister-level rank in the party-state hierarchy. China North Industries Group Corporation (Norinco) is China’s largest manufacturer of weapons and military equipment, with a focus on tanks, armored vehicles, firearms, and ammunition. China South Industries Group Corporation (Sorinco) is a diversified military manufacturer of vehicles, firearms, and optical electronics, among other equipment. China Poly Group is a conglomerate that brokers the export and import of military equipment on behalf of Chinese defense companies and the PLA. Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) is an aerospace conglomerate that manufactures fighter jets, bombers, helicopters, drones, and other aircraft for the PLA. Aero Engine Corporation of China (AECC) is dedicated to aerospace engine technology, including that with military applications. China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) is the principal supplier of the Chinese space program and produces military-related technology such as spacecraft, satellites, launch rockets, and missile systems. China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) is China’s largest manufacturer of missile systems and makes micro-satellites and solid-state launch vehicles. China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) is China’s largest shipbuilder and builds PLA ships.
Xi Jinping (born June 1953) is CMC Chairman and Commander in Chief, as well as head of the CMC Leading Small Group for National Defense and Military Reform. He assumes overall responsibility for the CMC’s work, and his concurrent role as CCP General Secretary demonstrates the party’s absolute leadership over the PLA. Xi has established a firm grip on the seven-member CMC: four of the six other members have direct personal or professional connections with the paramount leader, and the two others appear to be loyal followers who have been rapidly promoted under Xi’s leadership. Three of these six PLA leaders are holdovers from the previous CMC, signaling continuity in Xi’s political dominance.
Zhang Youxia (July 1950) is the first-ranked CMC Vice Chairman and a Politburo member. Like Xi, Zhang is the “princeling” son of a revolutionary leader, and the two have family connections in Shaanxi Province and may have known each other growing up in elite Beijing circles during the 1960s. Zhang was a close ally of Xi on the previous Politburo, during which time he served as the second-ranked CMC Vice Chairman, following an army career that included stints as head of the CMC Equipment Development Department and the former PLA General Armaments Department. Xi chose to keep Zhang on the Politburo even though Zhang turned 72 before the 20th Party Congress in 2022—well past the retirement age norm of 68—likely reflecting the key role that Zhang has played in Xi’s sweeping post-2015 military reforms. Zhang is also a rare PLA leader with combat experience, having fought in the 1979–1991 China-Vietnam border wars, reflecting Xi’s emphasis on improving the PLA’s “ability to fight and win wars.”
He Weidong (May 1957) is the second-ranked CMC Vice Chairman and a Politburo member. Xi knows He from when the latter worked as a military leader in both Fujian and Zhejiang while Xi was a leader of those provinces from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. Xi promoted He from outside the CCP Central Committee directly to the Politburo, a rare double-skip promotion that suggests both political closeness and policy importance. He is the first former Commander of the PLA Eastern Theater Command (or its predecessor, the Nanjing Military Region) to serve as a CMC Vice Chairman since the Mao era. This command includes responsibility for PLA operations in the Taiwan Strait, and He Weidong is thought to have planned China’s large-scale military exercises after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022. He will bring expertise in Taiwan operations to CMC and Politburo meetings, though likely less to prepare for a near-term invasion than to build longer-term advantage through well-calibrated deterrence and gray-zone tactics. He is an army general and previously commanded the Western Theater Command Ground Force, the Shanghai Garrison, and the old Jiangsu Military District.
Li Shangfu (February 1958) was appointed the first-ranked ordinary CMC member and both a State Councilor and the Minister of National Defense following the 20th Party Congress. But he disappeared from public view in late August 2023, reportedly after being placed under investigation for corruption, and was stripped of his government positions in October 2023. Li has no direct ties to Xi in his career, but he was considered a member of Xi’s “Military-Industrial Gang” of rapidly elevated technocrats, having spent 10 years as a major general after 2006 before winning promotion to lieutenant general in 2016 and then general in 2019. He is an aerospace engineer who worked for more than 30 years as a rocket scientist at the PLA Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan Province, including about 10 years as its leader. Li then moved to Beijing, where he held senior roles in the PLA General Armaments Department before serving as both Director of the CMC Equipment Development Department and the China Manned Space Program from 2017 to 2022. Li was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2018 for his role in helping China buy fighter jets and missiles from Russia.
Liu Zhenli (August 1964) is the second-ranked ordinary CMC member and the Chief of Staff of the CMC Joint Staff Department. Liu also lacks direct personal or professional ties to Xi, but, like Zhang Youxia, he is a combat veteran of the Sino-Vietnamese border conflict. Liu was most recently Commander of the PLA Ground Force, having previously served as Chief of Staff of the PLA Ground Force and of the People’s Armed Police after a long career climbing the army ranks. Liu plays a key role in joint operations, but his strong background in the ground forces suggests that other service branches such as the PLAN and PLAAF may struggle for influence in operational and administrative policymaking.
Miao Hua (November 1955) is the third-ranked ordinary CMC member and the Director of the CMC Political Work Department, retaining the same positions he held during the previous CMC from 2017 to 2022. Miao worked in proximity to Xi in Fujian for most of the 1980s and 1990s, and his continued leadership of political work in the armed forces will likely help Xi further consolidate his authority within the military. Miao wears the uniform of a PLAN admiral, having served as PLAN political commissar from 2014 to 2017; previously, he spent his entire career as a political commissar in the PLAGF.
Zhang Shengmin (February 1958) is the fourth-ranked ordinary CMC member and the Secretary of the CMC Commission for Discipline Inspection, as well as a Deputy Secretary of the CCP Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, retaining the same positions he held for the past five years. Zhang spent most of his career as a political commissar in what is now the PLARF, including for extended period in Xi’s ancestral province of Shaanxi. He was rapidly promoted after Xi became paramount leader, rising from lieutenant general to general is just over a year between the summer of 2016 and November 2017. His continued oversight of political discipline in the military seems designed to strengthen Xi’s claim to command the “absolute loyalty” of the PLA behind his political project to rule for life.
Zhong Shaojun (October 1968) is the Director of the CMC General Office, the Director of the CMC Chairman’s Office (CMCCO) that handles Xi’s day-to-day military business, and the apparent Director of the Office of the CMC Leading Small Group for National Defense and Military Reform. Zhong Shaojun is Xi’s top military aide and wields influence as an adviser and operator that far outshines his nominal rank. Zhong does not have a military background, but he has worked on Xi’s staff since the latter was Party Secretary of Zhejiang, following him first to Shanghai and then to Beijing, where he has been CMCCO Director since 2013 and CMCGO Director since 2017. Zhong became a uniformed PLA officer in this role, gaining the rank of senior colonel in 2013, major general in 2016, and lieutenant general in 2019. Zhong joined the CCP Central Committee for the first time at the 20th Party Congress, but he is only 54 years old and probably has a bright political future ahead of him. Xi may move him out of the military system in the not-too-distant future, as he lacks the service experience to credibly serve as a top PLA leader, by transferring into a senior role in party administration or provincial leadership.
While serving as a civilian CMC Vice Chairman from 2010 to 2012, Xi saw a PLA that exploited its monopolies on military expertise and processes to exert substantial autonomy and outsize policy influence. Illustrative examples include the PLA’s 2007 anti-satellite test and its 2011 test flight of a prototype J-20 stealth fighter during a visit by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, when it seemed that Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, had little control. Even more worrying for Xi was the perception that the PLA leadership had become so corrupt that the military struggled to perform its most basic functions. Then CMC Vice Chairmen Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou had sold so many official posts that they had effectively created a private army loyal to them within the PLA.
According to the “history resolution” that Xi passed at the Sixth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee in November 2021, “For a period, the party’s leadership over the military was obviously lacking. If this problem had not been completely solved, it would not only have diminished the military’s combat capacity, but also undermined the key political principle that the party commands the gun.” Guo and Xu also served as political instruments for former General Secretary Jiang Zemin to retain a strong hand in military affairs, limiting Hu’s ability to consolidate power and leaving Xi concerned that their remaining protégés in the high command might similarly handicap him.
Xi’s response to these looming challenges was swift. He pursued a political “shock and awe” campaign using the twin weapons of a disruptive reorganization of the PLA command structure and a withering anti-corruption purge of the PLA high command, which saw Guo and Xu arrested on charges of corruption and a massive 85 percent turnover in PLA personnel from the 18th to the 19th Central Committee selected in 2017. Xi’s predecessors had tried to initiate such reforms before, but they were thwarted by the political power of the PLA. In November 2013, the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee in November 2013 published a decision stating that the PLA would undergo a structural reorganization, the prelude to the sweeping changes that have since been achieved.
Xi then orchestrated an artful piece of political stagecraft in November 2014 by using the 85th anniversary of the 1929 Gutian Conference, which established the PLA’s subordination to the party, to convene a conference on the PLA as the party’s army. In his speech at the conference, Xi detailed Xu’s misdeeds, implying that most generals in attendance were at least indirectly complicit in his corruption and suggesting that he would establish a personal hold over the PLA akin to Mao’s. What followed was an unprecedented purge of corrupt generals, with a special focus on Jiang Zemin’s cronies.
Then, in 2015, Xi launched a reform program that brought perhaps the most significant shake-up of the PLA since the founding of the PRC. Shocked by the corruption and factionalism he had witnessed as a CMC Vice Chairman, Xi wanted to transform the PLA into a loyal, modern, and, ultimately, credible force that could protect the CCP regime, secure China’s borders, advance China’s position in territorial disputes, and project force regionally and, to some extent, globally. Well after the PLA formally recognized the importance of “joint operations” in 1993 and of “informatization” in 2004 — after witnessing US military might during the Gulf War and the Iraq War — it was still dominated by the ground forces and organized around a Soviet model focused on legacy missions, such as conducting land-based operations and fighting border wars.
Xi’s reforms had several dimensions. He reasserted CCP leadership by reemphasizing political work, installing his close ally Zhong Shaojun to supervise the CMC General Office, and creating a “CMC Chairman Responsibility System,” which emphasized the top civilian leader’s grip on the military, unlike the “CMC Vice Chairman Responsibility System” under Jiang and Hu, which gave de facto control to the top generals. He dismembered and downgraded the four powerful PLA General Departments and distributed their responsibilities among 15 new CMC departments, which were intentionally smaller and easier to manage, including supervisory departments focused on audit, discipline inspection, and political and legal affairs. This move reduced the potential for the emergence of powerful independent fiefdoms in the PLA that could constrain Xi’s military policy agenda, or even pose a direct threat to his power. To further reduce the possibility of cronyism, PLA personnel were rotated more regularly, and commanders and political commissars at senior levels were appointed to work with counterparts they did not know well. Xi consolidated his political victory by shrinking the CMC’s membership from 11 to 7 at the 19th Party Congress.
Xi significantly enhanced the PLA’s capacity for joint operations by transforming its seven military regions — which were ground force headquarters with no peacetime authority over navy, air force, or artillery units — into five theater commands with joint operational control of ground, navy, air, and conventional forces in their jurisdiction. Lower-level commands were streamlined from a four-tier structure to a three-tier army brigade battalion structure. He demoted the PLAGF by placing it on an equal footing with the other service branches, which were all removed from the operational chain of command. He increased personnel in the PLAN and PLAAF while reducing the PLA’s headcount by 300,000 personnel, mostly cut from the PLAGF and PLA support units. He established the PLASSF to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to operational commanders, as well as a Joint Logistics Support Force to service their logistical needs. And he boosted civil-military integration across the economy, but especially in science and technology.
The pace of political purges and structural overhauls of the military have slowed considerably with Xi’s triumphant execution of the 2015 reform agenda. Xi’s restructuring has created a more professionalized force that is focused on continuing a decades-long effort at military modernization, meaning that any internal disagreements in the PLA are likely to mirror the budgetary fights and interservice rivalries common in advanced foreign militaries. Xi’s greater emphasis on jointness and air-sea forces, while still a long-term project that is far from complete, already appears to be increasing the PLA’s abilities and confidence in conducting gray-zone operations in the Taiwan Strait and large-scale multi-force exercises around Taiwan, increasing the risk of a military accident or confrontation in the region.
Xi used his reports to the 19th and 20th Party Congresses to outline ambitious targets for the PLA’s modernization and the advancement of its operational capabilities. These political milestones specified that China should “accelerate the integrated development of mechanization, informatization, and intelligentization” by the PLA’s centenary in 2027, then “basically complete the modernization of national defense and the military” by 2035, and finally “fully transform the people’s armed forces into a world-class military” by 2049. These benchmarks do not represent an expedited timeline for a prospective invasion of Taiwan, but they do suggest that Xi is increasing his focus on military modernization, especially before the PLA centenary, which was a focus of the 20th Party Congress report.
Xi has not altered the most fundamental concepts of PLA doctrine, such as “active defense,” which holds that “we will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked.” In 2014, Xi oversaw an update to the PLA’s Military Strategic Guideline, a high-level document that provides a blueprint for the development and modernization of China’s military forces. That document is believed to have focused on winning “informationized local wars” through “integrated joint operations” in a “southeast and maritime” direction, with Taiwan and the United States seen as the primary opponents. None of these concepts was new to PLA doctrine, but the difference is that Xi has the political clout to force the PLA to undertake the reforms necessary to make real progress toward these objectives. Xi issued a Military Strategic Guideline for a New Era in 2019, which is thought to have simply updated the 2014 document to increase the focus on Xi’s political control of the military.
The military will remain a critical pillar of Xi’s power, and it will be important to monitor how his relationship with the PLA evolves. Xi’s position is stronger than ever but continuing to advance his reforms in an institution in which he is the only civilian will demand sustained political attention. Progress in the PLA’s joint capabilities is another crucial yardstick for evaluating Beijing’s confidence in intimidating Taiwan, advancing its claims in other territorial disputes, and contesting regional security leadership with the United States. While the PLA has become less corrupt and more capable under Xi, it still lacks joint structures below the theater command level, its leadership is still weighted toward ground forces, and its command capabilities remain wholly untested in actual combat scenarios.
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Supreme political power in China lies with Xi Jinping, who won a precedent-defying third five-year term as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) after the 20th Party Congress in October 2022. Xi packed the CCP’s top leadership with allies, ejected the remaining representatives of rival political networks, and established extraordinary control over the party and the country. He also exempted himself and several of his associates from the 20-year norm of Politburo members aged 68 or older retiring (Xi was 69 at the time of the Congress), while forcing leaders with other patrons to retire early, achieving a dominance of Chinese politics not seen since Deng Xiaoping or even Mao Zedong.
Xi’s incredible political maneuvering over the past decade enabled him to take greater advantage of a hierarchical government system that already concentrated a significant degree of decision-making power in the paramount leader. Xi leads the party, the state, and the military, serving concurrently as CCP General Secretary, President of the People’s Republic of China, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). A critical dimension of his consolidation of power is his ability to install loyal supporters in the lower-level leadership positions to which he must delegate tasks in these institutions.
Of the three institutions that Xi leads, the CCP by far the most important. Put simply, the party decides policy, the state implements policy, and the military defends the party and the country. The party boasts 96.7 million members, but its top decision-making body is the seven-person Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). These leaders of top party and state institutions meet about weekly to address domestic and foreign issues of national concern. Past meetings have focused on COVID-19, Five-Year Plans, natural disasters, economic policy, and Xinjiang. Xi chairs these meetings and sets their agendas.
The current PSC comprises Xi and, in rank order, six other national-level party leaders: Li Qiang, Premier of the State Council, China’s state cabinet; Zhao Leji, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s state legislature; Wang Huning, Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the party’s advisory body; Cai Qi, First Secretary of the CCP Central Secretariat, the party’s organizational nerve center; Ding Xuexiang, Executive Vice Premier of the State Council; and Li Xi, Secretary of the CCP Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the party’s internal watchdog. Zhao previously served as the CCDI Secretary and Wang Huning was the outgoing head of the Central Secretariat; the other four members are newcomers to the PSC.
This lineup embodies the “Maximum Xi” outcome of the 20th Party Congress, as all the PSC members have ties to Xi — having worked under Xi, worked under a close Xi ally, or having other personal or familial connections — while senior officials associated with former leaders had to retire. Outgoing Premier Li Keqiang and former CPPCC Chairman Wang Yang retired from the PSC even though they were young enough to stay, while rising star and former Vice Premier Hu Chunhua lost his seat on the Politburo. These three were the last senior leaders associated with the Communist Youth League, which nurtured Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao. Many analysts in China and abroad believed their rich experience and political norms of power sharing would lead Xi to include at least one of them on the new PSC.
A rung below the PSC are the other 17 members of the 24-person Politburo, who occupy positions at the deputy national level in the administrative hierarchy of the party-state. The Politburo meets monthly to discuss domestic and foreign issues of national importance and to hold a study session on an emerging policy priority. At the 20th Party Congress, Xi promoted several political associates, especially from the ranks of provincial leaders, and increased his effective majority on the body from about 60 percent to well over 80 percent of Politburo seats, with the remaining seats held mostly by technocrats. The lines between people on the wheel above illuminate these personal and professional connections.
The remainder of the Politburo is constituted by directors of CCP departments such as United Front chief Shi Taifeng, personnel chief Li Ganjie, propaganda chief Li Shulei, and law enforcement chief Chen Wenqing; State Council vice premiers He Lifeng, Zhang Guoqing, and Liu Guozhong; CMC Vice Chairmen Zhang Youxia and He Weidong; top provincial-level party secretaries Ma Xingrui, Yin Li, Chen Jining, Chen Min’er, Yuan Jiajun, and Huang Kunming; CCP Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office Director Wang Yi; and NPC Standing Committee First Vice Chairman Li Hongzhong. The retention of Zhang Youxia and the promotion of Wang Yi came as particular surprises because both were well over the previous retirement age. The current Politburo is the first since 1992 without a single female member.
The Politburo shows how Xi emerged from the 20th Party Congress with an unprecedented grip on the CCP. No paramount leader since Mao has achieved a PSC or Politburo with a greater proportion of their personal allies than Xi has now. His political grip on the top party bodies flows from his control of the selection process. Before the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Xi introduced an interview-based process of “conversation and investigation” to evaluate leadership candidates and discontinued the variable practice of taking a straw poll of senior cadres. In 2022, Xi included new requirements to “put political standards first” and promote officials who were “firm supporters” of his leadership. Xi reportedly spoke with only 30 leaders in 2022, compared to 57 in 2017; this time, he did not consult with retired party elders or with national government leaders who did not hold top party positions. These apparent snubs suggest the political impotency of the State Council compared with party leadership bodies and the weakness of old political networks tied to former leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
Xi’s consolidation of power shows that he prioritizes political trust over governance experience and past norms such as age, power sharing, and collective leadership. An amendment to the CCP constitution at the 20th Party Congress strengthened Xi’s personal rule by obliging party members to implement the “two upholds”: “uphold Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the Party Central Committee and in the Party as a whole and uphold the Central Committee’s authority and its centralized and unified leadership.” But the composition of these top bodies also shows that Xi increasingly values technocratic expertise. The new Politburo includes eight technocrats, defined as leaders with an educational and professional background in STEM, compared to five in the previous lineup. The eight include all seven provincial leaders promoted to the Politburo. This increase likely reflects Xi's focus on technological expertise as a critical policy input for China to innovate itself out of the middle-income trap and out of the Western chokehold on core technologies. Xi may also see technocrats as more capable administrators and more dependable political subordinates.
In Xi’s view, tighter political control is a good thing, because it enables a clearer policy agenda and better policy implementation. Surrounding himself with trusted allies could give Xi the political breathing room necessary to adopt more pragmatic policies or unpopular but necessary reforms. However, the stronger likelihood is that “Maximum Xi” increases political risk. Other leaders are less likely to push back against Xi’s views, as their careers depend more than ever on supporting Xi’s agenda. Major policy decisions will likely become increasingly defined as expressions of Xi’s personal leadership, creating a sticky political dynamic in which correcting errors becomes more difficult as criticism of policy is tantamount to criticism of Xi. And when Xi does decide on a new direction, his power renders policymaking susceptible to volatile shifts, as demonstrated by the sudden about-face on zero-COVID. Xi’s leadership team also have less experience in national or even provincial leadership roles than their predecessors, especially his top economic team of Li Qiang, Ding Xuexiang, and He Lifeng.
However, the change relative to expectations for Chinese politics after Xi's power consolidation at the 20th Party Congress is one of degree rather than direction; firms and investors should not expect radical policy shifts as much as an accelerated continuity of strategies laid out in Xi’s 14th Five-Year Plan, third “history resolution,” and report to the 20th Party Congress.
Ties to Xi
Xi has promoted mostly officials whom he knows, and who sometimes know each other, from various parts of his career. This pattern partly reflects the personal ties and policy aptitudes of individual leaders, but given that it is those closest to an authoritarian leader who can end up posing the greatest threat, elevating officials from different backgrounds may reflect an effort by Xi to ensure his team are not too close to each other, so as to guard against the formation of political groups outside of Xi.
Groups of officials who know Xi from a particular place, or who have worked or studied together, are often referred to as “factions” or “sub-factions” under Xi’s leadership. Such terminology, which is sometimes used in this product, offers a helpful way to track the relative fortunes of different types of leaders, but the concept of factions in Chinese politics should be treated with caution. These groups are typically not as united in action or intention as the term may suggest.
The opaqueness of Chinese politics means the fact that officials have studied together, spent time together, or share other personal ties can be a powerful clue as to the strength of their political relationship, but such a connection is not sufficient to establish them as friends or allies. The academic literature suggests the most powerful “factional” indicator is a direct professional relationship where a factional “client” works for and is then promoted by a factional “patron.”
Xi’s power is the decisive factor in personnel and policy decisions that casts doubt on the strength or existence of factions below Xi, at least at present. The only relative certainty is that Xi leads a dominant faction in the CCP. His unusually strong influence on personnel decisions over the last decade has allowed him to elevate loyal allies, personal associates, and many others into leadership positions, all of whom now owe some degree of political fealty to Xi’s leadership and policy preferences.
Xi has promoted several officials who worked under him in Fujian Province, where he served as a local official from 1985 to 2002, including as Deputy Party Secretary from 1995 to 2002 and as Governor from 1999-2002. This group includes Cai Qi, He Lifeng, He Weidong, Huang Kunming, and Wang Xiaohong, all of whom also grew up in Fujian. Chen Wenqing worked with several Xi loyalists in Fujian after Xi left.
Xi also promoted officials who worked for him in Zhejiang Province, where he was Party Secretary from 2002-2007, most notably Chen Min’er and Li Qiang, both of whom also grew up in Zhejiang. Cai Qi, He Weidong, and Huang Kunming also worked under Xi's leadership again in Zhejiang.
Xi was then Party Secretary of Shanghai from March to October 2007, where he met Ding Xuexiang, who worked as his top political secretary. Xi’s number-two in Shanghai was Han Zheng, who belonged to the “Shanghai Gang” of former paramount leader Jiang Zemin, but later got behind Xi’s leadership. Chief ideologue Wang Huning is also a Shanghai native who started as a Jiang acolyte, but he has served as a loyal advisor to three paramount leaders, and especially on “Xi Jinping Thought.”
Xi has known some top leaders for a long time because of family connections through his father Xi Zhongxun and his ancestral province of Shaanxi, including Shaanxi native Zhang Youxia and onetime Shaanxi official Li Xi, and, to a lesser extent, Shaanxi native Zhao Leji and former Party Secretary of Shaanxi Liu Guozhong.
Other top leaders built their careers around Xi’s alma mater Tsinghua University in Beijing, most notably Chen Jining, a Tsinghua graduate who found favor with top leaders, including Xi, as he rose through the university administration. Xi’s previous personnel chief Chen Xi, who was his college roommate at Tsinghua in the late 1970s, also helped promote Tsinghua graduates, possibly including Li Ganjie.
The “Military-Industrial Gang” is a loose group of technocratic experts with extensive experience managing complex state-owned technology projects who were put into contention for top leadership positions earlier in Xi’s tenure through promotions to provincial leadership roles. It includes Li Ganjie, Ma Xingrui, Yuan Jiajun, and Zhang Guoqing. They were trained as aerospace, nuclear, or weapons engineers before rising through the military-industrial sector to leadership positions in major state-owned enterprises or technical ministries. Their elevation reflects Xi’s focus on technology but also his desire to promote politically dependable officials without strong connections to former leaders.
Other top officials have looser connections with Xi. Li Shulei and Shi Taifeng worked as deputies to Xi while he was President of the Central Party School from 2007 to 2012. Public health expert Yin Li is purported to have helped Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan become a World Health Organization Goodwill Ambassador for Tuberculosis and HIV in 2011. Liu Guozhong worked under retired Xi confidant Li Zhanshu in Heilongjiang in the 2000s. Li Hongzhong was a follower of Jiang Zemin before becoming a vocal Xi supporter during his first term. Wang Yi is a career diplomat and trusted foreign policy expert.
The political report to the 20th Party Congress, a truncated version of which Xi delivered in a speech at the conclave, represents the most authoritative statement of the party’s current worldview and policy priorities. Changes in the language used by party leaders in these reports, or tweaks to the rigid format that the reports typically follow, can evince meaningful policy shifts. These policy shifts are both reflected in and driven by the type of officials whom Xi has promoted to the top party bodies.
Political reports do not go into detail about specific policies, but their high-level messages inform policymaking for the next five years and beyond. Xi said that the most recent report constitutes a “grand blueprint” for governing China. Its content signaled continuity rather than change in Xi’s personal leadership and policy agenda, drawing heavily from the most recent Five-Year Plan and the third history resolution, both issued in 2021. Overall, it suggests that Xi will keep pushing China in a more authoritarian, statist, and nationalist direction in the coming years and even decades.
This includes the Chinese economy, where the party plans to play a stronger role—for example, by taking board seats in major firms and guiding capital toward favored sectors. The political report introduced “systems thinking” as part of Xi’s ideology. According to Xi, “all things are interconnected and interdependent,” as economic, political, and social reforms involve adjusting the balance of interests such that “pulling one hair moves the whole body.” The increasingly complex policy issues facing China, therefore, require enhanced party oversight and more government “systems” to manage all aspects of the country’s development. This more centralized leadership is reflected in Xi’s appointment of Cai Qi as the first PSC member to lead the powerful CCP General Office since the Mao era, of chief ideologue Wang Huning to lead the party’s influence efforts in Chinese society and beyond, and of Shi Taifeng as the first incoming Politburo member since 1977 to serve as director of the United Front Work Department.
Xi justifies this increase in party control as necessary to counter rising threats. The party previously presented China as in a “period of strategic opportunity,” in which favorable domestic and international environments enabled a focus on economic development. Xi’s latest report shows that he believes China has now entered a period in which “strategic opportunity co-exists with risks and challenges, and uncertain and unpredictable factors are increasing.” Moreover, the report continues, “various ‘black swan’ and ‘gray rhino’ events may occur at any time,” highlighting the party’s rising concern with preparing for both unexpected crises and foreseeable threats, respectively. The promotion of Wang Yi to the Politburo, despite his age, signals Xi’s desire for continuity in his more assertive diplomacy.
Xi wants to balance economic growth with national security. The 2022 political report contained a new section devoted to national security, which should “permeate every aspect and the whole process” of governance. To prepare for “high winds, choppy waves, and even dangerous storms,” Xi’s report called for stronger party leadership, people-centered policymaking, and a spirit of struggle. The report also added a section on science, education, and human capital, priority areas to bolster indigenous innovation and address the political risks of lagging productivity growth and the Western chokehold on key technologies. Xi’s fixation on security is evidenced by the promotion of Chen Wenqing as the first intelligence chief to lead the party’s top law enforcement body, and the elevation of Chen, public security chief Wang Xiaohong, and top CCDI Deputy Liu Jinguo to serve on the Central Secretariat.
Even high-single-digit GDP growth targets now seem beyond reach. Development remains the party’s “top priority,” but its “primary task” is now “high-quality development.” This includes elevating Xi’s “new development pattern,” a strategy that unites development and security goals by boosting domestic demand and homegrown technology while increasing global reliance on Chinese supply chains. Xi’s political report identified new growth drivers—AI, IT, biotech, green industries, high-end manufacturing, renewable energy, and new industrial materials (such as those engineered with nanotechnology)—but it was notably less enthusiastic about markets, openness, and supply-side structural reform than even his previous report in 2017. The report’s vision of strategic economic management also requires the party to expand oversight of the private sector by “strengthening Party building” in nonstate firms and “improving corporate governance” of financial firms, and of private wealth, by “regulating the mechanism of wealth accumulation.” While growth remains an important goal for Xi, and new premier Li Qiang is known for his business-friendly policies as a provincial leader, Li is an inexperienced economic policymaker and won promotion for his political closeness to Xi. Other personnel movements also suggest Xi’s continued move away from market reforms, with Western-trained technocrat Liu He replaced as Vice Premier by former local party boss He Lifeng, and former Xi chief of staff Ding Xuexiang becoming Li’s number two on the State Council.
The report suggested that Xi is preparing China for long-term strategic competition with the United States. It defined the party’s overarching goal for China as “building a socialist modern great power” by the centenary of the People’s Republic in 2049 and “us[ing] Chinese-style modernization to comprehensively advance the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” The party has long wanted to achieve “modernization” by midcentury, but this report stated in the clearest terms yet that Xi wants China to “lead the world in comprehensive national power and international influence.” The new link between “Chinese-style modernization” and “national rejuvenation” emphasizes Xi’s determination to steer China on the party’s own course, one that rejects democratic politics, individual freedoms, and US leadership in global governance. That includes efforts to “actively participate” in global human rights governance and the formulation of global security rules. Xi’s report did not change Taiwan policy, but a new phrase—“resolving the Taiwan question is for the Chinese people themselves to decide”—portends stronger pushback against U.S. and allied efforts to upgrade their interactions with Taiwan.
The Future of Xi
What the 20th Party Congress did not do was provide any indication of how long Xi would remain as leader. But Xi’s third term, the new history resolution, no apparent political heir, and Xi’s personalization of party ideology suggest that he plans to rule indefinitely.
Shortly after his reappointment, Xi led the new PSC on a visit to Yangjialing in Yan’an, where Mao cemented his absolute authority at the Seventh Party Congress in 1945. Xi said that Party Congress “marked the Party’s political, ideological, and organizational maturity,” which included “forming a group of well-tested politicians who held high the banner of Mao Zedong.” Xi drew a parallel between Mao in 1945 and his own consolidation of power in 2022, implying that he plans to lead the party for decades to come.
But Xi’s succession remains a “gray rhino” political risk for China: we know it will happen, but we do not know when, we do not know how, and we do not know what comes next. The longer Xi rules, and the older he gets, the more other officials will eye a post-Xi future. Political competition could start to emerge between different leaders, or between groups of officials with different ties to Xi. A contested succession could bring policy confusion, economic stasis, or even political chaos.