This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Structural reforms by the ruling Chinese Communist Party leadership that could bring government security and intelligence branches under the direct control of the ruling party, rather than the country’s cabinet, suggest a further bid to consolidate political power in the hands of leader Xi Jinping as well as a possible preparation for war, analysts said.
Party leader Xi Jinping told a high-level political meeting in Beijing on Tuesday that the upcoming session of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, would see the party strengthen “unified leadership” over scientific and technological institutions, as well as over the country’s financial institutions and over “government responsibility.” The announcement suggests further internal crackdowns to come within the government and party.
A draft institutional reform plan is currently under discussion that will “be more relevant, more intensive, have a broader reach and touch on deeper interests” than previous structures, state broadcaster CCTV quoted Xi as telling the meeting.
While officials have yet to make public the exact details of the restructuring, Japan-based China commentator Hong Xiangnan said the plans will likely include bringing the ministry for public security, which governs the police system, and the ministry for state security, which governs the state security apparatus and overseas intelligence operations, under the aegis of the party.
“The only way this will go is the strengthening of the party at the expense of the state,” Hong said. “It will turn government departments into administrative offices, tasked with running errands and doing the gruntwork.”
“They will carry out the basic administrative work, but the core of policy-making will be taken away, and go to strengthen the leadership of the party,” he said. “We’re not talking about a merger of party and state here.”
He said the reforms will likely include the setting up of a powerful internal affairs committee under the central leadership of the Communist Party in Beijing.
Unlike other committees and commissions, it’s unlikely that local governments will be called upon to set up their own local branches of the internal affairs committee, which will be run top-down from Beijing, Hong said.
“There won’t be any need to have branches at different levels of government,” he said.
If the reforms do implement such a plan, the internal affairs committee could look fairly similar to the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs under the former Soviet Union, which was responsible for ensuring internal revolutionary order and the security of the state, as well as the internal safeguarding of state property, the guarding of national borders, and the registration of births, deaths, marriages and divorces, according to a July 11, 1934 report in the Soviet newspaper Izvestia.
Unprecedented official control
Such a plan, if implemented, comes at a time of unprecedented official control over people’s personal and political lives, with the transfer of law-enforcement powers to local neighborhood committees and the setting up of local militias to boost “stability maintenance,” a system of law enforcement aimed at forestalling dissent and nipping protest in the bud.
Hong said it was significant that Xi was only now mentioning these plans, on the eve of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, and that they hadn’t gotten an airing at the 20th party congress in October.
“Then suddenly they hold a second plenary session of the Central Committee and announce institutional reforms, just before the parliamentary sessions,” he said.
“It shows that it hasn’t been possible to implement whatever was decided at the first plenary session [in the wake of the party congress], or at least that’s likely,” Hong said.
The pro-China Singapore-based Lianhe Zaobao newspaper reported “rumors that there may be relevant reforms in the financial system and the political and legal system.”
“In addition, the ministries of human resources and social security may integrate with the ministry of civil affairs,” it said.
The paper also quoted analysts as saying that the reform “will further highlight the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and weaken the power of the government.”
‘Taking China back to the 1950s’
The Chinese state is already subordinate to the political power of the ruling party, but Xi Jinping has sought to amplify that principle still further in his own brand of political ideology, a move analysts warn is already creating a personality cult around China’s leader, who is now serving a third term with no formal requirement to step down.
Prior to Xi’s rise to supreme power, government departments typically served as a useful drag on leaders’ personal projects, ensuring at least some measure of internal checks and balances on the power of individuals within the party-state.
Veteran journalist Ma Ju said the theme of the reforms appeared to herald more aggressive party control over every aspect of people’s lives, a concept that is in line with reforms that have already taken place under Xi.
Since taking power in 2012, Xi has already boosted his own personal power at the expense of other high-ranking leaders, particularly his premier, from whom he has taken back responsibility for running the economy in recent years.
As early as January 2014, Xi had taken over the task of steering the “working group” that will implement reforms from premier Li Keqiang.
“Now we’re seeing that they need to sharpen their knives, for use both externally and internally,” Ma said. “They’ll be taking China back to the 1950s by setting up the Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or rather putting China back on a wartime footing.”
“They will control everything, plan everything and order everything,” Ma said. “It’s more important than ever for them to have control of their own fundamentals.”
Ma said the talk of efficiency is likely linked to the time lag between a top-level political decision being taken in Beijing, and its implementation on the ground.
“The ministry of public security has always been obedient to the party, but now it’s going to need to cooperate with decisions passed just a couple of days earlier, as part of a military-led system engaged in the mighty struggle,” he said, in a possible reference to Xi’s threat to invade democratic Taiwan.
Merging party and state
The Lianhe Zaobao quoted Lu Xi, an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, as saying that the restructuring will further blur the distinction between party and state.
“It is a reform that goes in the opposite direction from the separation of party and state,” the paper quoted Lu as saying. “The status of the State Council and the importance of the prime minister in the country’s operation and decision-making process will be further weakened.”
This year’s restructuring is being widely seen as the second wave of reforms launched by Xi at the National People Congress in March 2018, according to the Lianhe Zaobao.
The congress is likely to see Xi Jinping re-elected as President, or head of state, Li Qiang succeed Li Keqiang as premier of the State Council, and Zhao Leji succeed Li Zhanshu as Chairman of the National People’s Congress, the paper said.
Wang Huning will replace Wang Yang as chairman of the national committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, while Ding Xuexiang will replace Han Zheng as executive vice premier.
It is widely believed that Han Zheng will succeed Wang Qishan as the next vice president, the paper said.
The English-language Global Times newspaper said “timely reforms can push for more scientific party leadership of party and state institutions,” citing Zhang Shuhua, director of the institute of political sciences at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“China is gearing up for the new development era [under Xi’s leadership] while facing complicated domestic and international situations,” it said.
The 14th National People’s Congress will open in Beijing on March 5.