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The China Challenge: New Leadership Focuses on the Struggle for Security
A look at the new Politburo shows a disproportionately large number of military and security insiders
By Guoguang Wu
The new leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was announced to the world on Oct. 23, 2022, following the close of the party’s 20th National Congress. As the CCP has a monopoly on state power in China, its leadership is also the highest leadership in the country. The Politburo is the supreme authority of power for the CCP, while the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) handles everyday decision-making on its behalf. Therefore, the 24 members of the Politburo, seven of whom sit on the PBSC, have attracted attention worldwide for what they might reveal about China’s direction in the next five years.
One remarkable feature of the new leadership of the Politburo, the Central Secretariat (which operates the CCP’s internal affairs) and the PBSC is the disproportionate number of members with security-related backgrounds. This is particularly notable among the new members of these powerful organizations. Who are these people, and what does their disproportionately large presence mean for China and the world?
The Rise of Security Personnel in CCP Leadership
Observers agree that as Xi Jinping begins his third term as party chief, he has gained overwhelming domination over the new leadership. The protégés of former party chiefs Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao have been pushed to retire or semi-retire, and all have been excluded from the Politburo and the Central Secretariat. Meanwhile, Xi’s men—literally, as no women are included—retain power, despite their old age, and Xi has promoted more of his men (both young and old) to the leadership bodies.
In total, 13 high-ranking officials have just joined the Politburo, and two more have joined the Central Secretariat. They come from different career backgrounds and from various leadership positions. However, one common feature is prominent: Among these 15, at least 10 have backgrounds in security, the military or the military industry. Appointing them to China’s highest leadership shows an extraordinary emphasis on leaders with security-related experience and responsibilities.
These new leaders can be roughly grouped into four categories. The first are those who have past experience and current responsibilities in the security sector of the party-state. Such leaders include:
Chen Wenqing, a veteran intelligence officer and former minister of state security, who is the first Politburo member with such a background. As secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, he is in charge of the entire law enforcement apparatus.
Liu Jinguo, a new member of the Central Secretariat and currently the No. 2 leader of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which investigates corruption within the party. His earlier career was in the Ministry of Public Security, China’s top police agency, where he rose to the position of executive minister before being transferred to the CCP’s anti-corruption agency.
Wang Xiaohong, also a new member of the Central Secretariat, who is currently chief policeman of China in his capacity as minister of public security. His personal relationship with Xi is said to be extremely close.
Second, there are the military leaders. Xi himself had military experience early in his career and, more importantly, directly controls the military in his capacity as chairman of the Central Military Commission, which runs the country’s armed forces. There is also Zhang Youxia, a combat veteran of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, who retains his membership in the 20th Politburo despite being 72 years old. Joining them in the Politburo is General He Weidong, who rose within the People’s Liberation Army to become vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. Known as a hawkish general, he has, over his decades-long military career, directed military actions targeted at Taiwan.
The third group consists of those with a background in the military industrial sector. Four of the new Politburo members fall in this category, and they were all promoted from provincial party secretary positions. They are Ma Xingrui of Xinjiang, Yuan Jiajun of Zhejiang, Zhang Guoqing of Liaoning and Li Ganjie of Shandong. They were all high-ranking managers pf some of the largest state-owned military-industrial corporations before turning to local party-state cadres. Liu Guozhong, the party secretary of Shaanxi province, could also be included in this category; although he has no experience working in the sector, he is a trained expert on cannonball industrial technology. Now that the 20th Party Congress is over, members of this group will take up new responsibilities, except Ma, who very likely will stay in Xinjiang.
Finally, there is a group of new leaders whose performance in “warrior wolf” diplomacy or, domestically, in maintaining “stability”—that is, repression of potential challenges to the CCP regime—Xi much appreciates. Foreign Minister Wang Yi belongs to the former category, and Shi Taifeng, former party secretary in Ningxia and then in Inner Mongolia, to the latter.
The proportion of security personnel in the PBSC is similar to that of the larger Politburo. Among the seven members, at least four have experience and responsibilities in security affairs. They include: Cai Qi, who had been in charge of the office of the National Commission on Security before joining the 19th Politburo as party chief of Beijing; Zhao Leji and Li Xi, former and current chiefs of the party’s disciplinary enforcement organization; and Xi himself, chairman of both the National Commission on Security and the Central Military Commission.
‘Struggle for Security’ in the Next Five Years
The composition of the new leadership indicates that security issues will be a high priority on the CCP’s agenda over the next five years. According to the 20th Party Congress’ resolution regarding Xi’s report: “State security is the foundation for the rejuvenation of the nation,” and “national security must be implemented in every aspect and in the entire process of the party-state’s work.”
In the Chinese context, there is no difference between state security and national security, as both in the Chinese language are termed “guojia anquan.” In fact, since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, the Chinese party-state has constantly emphasized “regime security” as the core of China’s “national interests” in diplomacy, and “maintaining stability” as the priority overwhelming everything else. Xi has simply continued this line of thinking by giving further, extraordinary emphasis to security. To him, economic development must be in “coordination” with security issues. As “constructions” are the major way of promoting economic performance, Xi highlights the term “struggle,” which is closely connected to the theme of defending national or state security.
The general implications should be obvious, therefore, for interpreting the new composition of the CCP leadership organizations. But because Xi’s third term has just begun, and not all the new members of the leadership have started their new assignments, it is unclear what the CCP’s operation will look like now as a former national security director is in charge of the party’s everyday business. Similarly, how the Chinese legal system will function remains to be seen as the chief officer of the “Chinese KGB” now sits at the top of this system.