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Deciphering policy-making structures in Xi Jinping’s China

Since the 18th party congress in late 2012, Xi Jinping clearly dominates politics in China. Compared to his two predecessors acting as head of state and general secretary of the CPC - Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – Xi appears to be more involved in day-to-day political decision-making: he puts new issues on the political agenda and follows their implementation closely. The most prominent example is his personal supervision of the implementation of key resolutions made at the Third Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee in November 2013, such as structural adjustments of the Chinese economy. The ultimate goal of his ambitions is to strengthen the rule and legitimacy of the CPC. The party faces a growing number of increasingly complex problems and challenges. Examples range from tamping down corruption to the need to modernise the military to cybersecurity.

Division of work: top leaders and political advisors

Xi Jinping cannot deal with all these tasks at the same time. There is a division of work between the members of the standing committee of the Politburo and political advisors.

A special feature in the structures of the CPC are the leading small groups (LSG). While temporary bodies by default -most of them exist for several weeks or months and meet in irregular intervals - others, such as the Central Leading Group Finance and Economy, have existed for several decades and exert major influence on policy making. The groups allow the party to deal with novel and important issues in a timely manner. They have different degrees of institutionalisation, and not all carry the same amount of political weight.

Who heads the groups is one of the main indicators for determining their importance. We identified 15 groups that are likely headed by a member of the Politburo Standing Committee (as of May 2016). 

Xi Jinping chairs multiple groups, Liu Yunshan three. Wang Qishan and Yu Zhengsheng lead two groups respectively, Zhang Dejiang leads one. The remaining two members of the Politburo Standing committee - Li Keqiang and Zhang Gaoli – lead no party LSG groups of their own, but act as deputy group leaders of the LSG for Comprehensively Deepening Reform. In their work, they focus primarily on State Council institutions and policy implementation. Besides Standing Committee members, political advisors play a key role in the leading small groups. Due to their technical expertise, they act as director generals of the leading small groups` general offices, exerting influence over meeting agendas and proceedings. 

Five new groups mirror Xi’s priorities

Five of the identified leading small groups were established only after Xi Jinping took over the role of general secretary in 2012. The themes they cover mirror priorities of his political agenda so far:

  • the implementation of the reform resolution of the third plenum of 2013
  • national security
  • modernisation of the military
  • re-ideologisation in form of the campaigns to draw CPC members closer to the masses
  • informatisation and cybersecurity 

The activities of these groups show that our focus should not be on the person of Xi Jinping alone, when we observe China’s political system. It is critical to closely analyse the structures of the CCP as well as the actions and speeches of other Politburo members and political advisors.