What are the Policy Assignments of China’s New State Council Leadership?
In early March, the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s legislature, approved a twice-a-decade reshuffle of leading officials in the State Council, the top administrative body of the People’s Republic of China, which oversees the implementation of policies decided by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But authorities did not publish the specific policy areas that each official would manage, information that is only just emerging based on the meetings, conferences, and inspections that they each attend. This data is invaluable for gaining insight into which leaders are most influential on any given issue.
People familiar with the matter have informed Asia Society Policy Institute's Center for China Analysis of the policy responsibilities assigned to the Premier, four Vice Premiers, and five State Councilors for both 2018-2023 and 2023-2028 (please see tables below). These officials comprise the State Council executive, which meets regularly to discuss major government issues. Their work assignments show Beijing’s rising policy focus on technology, human capital, market regulation, and state-owned enterprises, as well as the State Council’s diminishing influence in decision-making under the rule of CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping.
Premier Li Qiang, who chairs the State Council and is Xi’s number-two on the party’s seven member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), simply takes responsibility for “leading the overall work of the State Council.” His predecessor, Li Keqiang, was described as “in charge of State Council work,” with specific mention of co-managing diplomacy, defense, public finance, and government auditing. These descriptions are brief but hint at a stronger leadership role across all State Council portfolios for Li Qiang, a close Xi ally who leads a new executive full of officials with direct or indirect political ties to Xi.
Executive Vice Premier Ding Xuexiang, Xi’s former Chief-of-Staff, and the sixth-ranked PSC member, inherits oversight of several ministerial portfolios from his predecessor Han Zheng, including key areas such as development and reform, public finance, taxation, and the environment. But Ding is also responsible for education, science and technology, intellectual property, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Chinese Academy of Engineering — work previously led by regular Vice Premiers or even by State Councilors. This reallocation represents a further upgrade of the Chinese government’s institutional focus on building an innovation ecosystem to compete with the West. It also reflects Ding’s little-known technocratic background: he studied mechanical engineering before spending the first 15-plus years of his career at the Shanghai Research Institute for Materials.
The other Vice Premiers are less senior than Ding because they sit on the party’s elite 24-member Politburo but not on the PSC. Xi’s confidante He Lifeng will become a focus for international market interest in China as he inherits not only former economic czar Liu He’s supervision of monetary policy, financial regulation, and securities regulations (although Ding Xuexiang will likely lead a new CCP finance commission), but also outgoing Vice Premier Hu Chunhua’s commerce portfolio, which includes trade and foreign investment. This aggregation of economic portfolios could reflect both Xi’s trust in He and his desire to balance the influence of sub-factional leaders between Li Qiang (Zhejiang), Ding Xuexiang (Shanghai), and He Lifeng (Fujian). He also takes over natural resources and housing and urban-rural development from ex-PSC member Han Zheng, possibly suggesting a lighter policy focus on these areas over the next five years, although He is an unusually influential Vice Premier.
Zhang Guoqing becomes a point person for industrial policy by assuming Liu He’s responsibility for industry and information technology and former State Councilor Wang Yong’s portfolios of state-owned enterprises and (non-financial) market regulation. The upgraded status of the latter two policy areas suggests that Xi’s focus on upgrading state-owned enterprises and regulatory expansion will intensify. Zhang also leads a consolidated emergency management portfolio, which Wang Yong previously split with Han Zheng.
Liu Guozhong takes a hodgepodge of less heavy-hitting portfolios that were previously held by Hu Chunhua and fellow former Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, notably health, water, and agriculture and rural affairs. His more prominent jobs will include protecting against a COVID resurgence, overseeing Xi’s rising focus on food security, and Xi’s “common prosperity” efforts to close urban-rural divides.
State Councilors are less influential than Vice Premiers because they are not Politburo members. Wu Zhenglong, who also serves as the new State Council Secretary-General, is responsible for the daily work of the State Council and leads its various constituent organizational and research offices (except the Development Research Center, which is led by Ding Xuexiang). Shen Yiqin, the only woman and the only ethnic minority in this group, takes charge of civil affairs, human resources and social security, veterans affairs, and sport, with the latter policy areas having all been downgraded from Vice Premier-level duties.
Defense Minister Li Shangfu, Public Security Minister Wang Xiaohong, and Foreign Minister Qin Gang became State Councilors by dint of their leadership of State Council Ministries deemed especially important by the party leadership and are mostly charged with leading work in these portfolios.
Another significant function of Vice Premiers and State Councilors is to liaise with other institutions to coordinate policy activity between “thinkers” in the party and “doers” in the government. The liaison duties of the new leadership include organizations that do not appear to have been assigned as specific responsibilities for the previous State Council executive, suggesting these groups are becoming more influential in policymaking. For example, Ding Xuexiang is now the liaison to the China Association for Science and Technology (a mass organization for scientists and engineers that also works on technology transfer and foreign talent recruitment) and Qin Gang liaises with the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (a United Front body that aims to influence foreign elites).
Liaison assignments also show how the party has acquired leadership over many policy areas from the state. For example, Shen Yiqin is the liaison to the National Ethnic Affairs Commission and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, State Council constituent departments that now formally or effectively report to party authorities (the United Front work Department and the Propaganda Department, respectively). Wu Zhenglong is listed as the liaison to the Ministry of Justice, raising the possibility that the State Council is losing some control of its work, and as assisting the Premier to liaise with the National Audit Office (NAO), suggesting the party leadership is empowering the NAO to exercise more oversight of the State Council. Wu’s task to liaise with, rather than oversee, the National Public Complaints and Proposals Administration reflects the new responsibilities of the CCP Social Work Department announced in last month’s party-state institutional reform. It is also unclear whether Wang Xiaohong retains the oversight his predecessor Zhao Kezhi had over the Ministry of State Security. Moreover, unless Li Qiang steps into the breach, uncertainty exists about the continuation of formal State Council executive-level liaisons with agencies including the Cyberspace Administration of China, the Taiwan Affairs Office, the NPC-affiliated National Supervisory Commission, and the top legal institutions.
This information about the policy responsibilities of the State Council executive shows the party’s evolving policy priorities and Xi’s continued drive to centralize control over key policy areas into party institutions and under his own leadership. These personnel assignments are also essential knowledge for firms, governments, and scholars who analyze policymaking in China.
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