It’s not only the Shangai clique that is at loggerheads with Xi Jinping, but some of the princelings too have turned their back on him.
From 4 to 11 March, more than 5,000 of China’s political, business, and social elite congregated in Beijing for the two annual plenary sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Popularly known as “Two Sessions” (两会), they are of interest to the strategic community, policymakers, economists and investors, for these reveal China’s priorities for economic development for the next five years and beyond, defence spending, veiled insights into China’s factional feud, and more importantly overall policy direction of the country.
Picking figures from various reports presented during the sessions, analysts have mostly focused on China’s 2.3% economic growth in 2020, projected growth of over 6% for 2021 against IMF’s projections of 8.1%, generating 11 million new jobs, and spending 6.8% of the GDP (209 billion USD) on defence, which anyhow is way less if expenditure on military research and development, Chinese People’s Armed Police Force and allocation pertaining to defence to other ministries is concerned. One thing which many China watchers has missed is one of the agendas (number 5) of the NPC titled “Deliberate on proposals submitted by the Standing Committee of the NPC for deliberation of the Organic Law of the NPC (Revised Draft)”.
The Organic Law (组织法) of the NPC was adopted at the Fifth Session of the Fifth National People’s Congress and promulgated for implementation by the proclamation of the National People’s Congress on 10 December 1982. The Organic Law has four chapters and runs into 46 articles. A total of 37 new amendments proposed by Wang Chen, Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on 6 March undoubtedly bear the imprimatur of the core leader, Xi Jinping. The 25th and 26th amendments may be of particular interest as these reveal the undercurrents of factional feud, the leadership succession, Xi Jinping’s vulnerabilities, and further consolidation of his grip over the party state.
A new chapter entitled “general Provisions” (总则) has been added that stipulates that the NPC and its Standing Committee must adhere to the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the “Three Represents”, scientific outlook, and Xi Jinping’s thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era as the torchbearer (Article 3 of the revised draft); the provisions also talk about building China into a “socialist country ruled by law” (Article 5 of the draft amendment), as well as reiteration of “democratic centralism” (Article 6 of the revised draft) that was almost forgotten during the reform era.
The most important components are Articles 25 and 26 of the draft amendment pertaining to the appointment and removal of individuals from the State Council as well as the Central Military Commission (CMC) by the Standing Committee of the NPC. The amendments stipulate: First, the Standing Committee may decide on the appointment and removal of other members of the State Council on the recommendations of the Premier of the State Council when the NPC is not in session. The same provision has been extended to the appointment and removal of individuals from the CMC (Article 25 of the draft amendment). In another clause, the removal of the portfolios could be at the recommendations of both the Chairman’s committee as well as the Premier, the same has been extended to the removal of portfolios in the CMC (Article 26 of the draft amendment).
Though the amendments have been carried out in order to “promote the modernization of the national governance system and governance capabilities”, however, it is visible that Xi Jinping wants to assert greater control in the highest organ of the state power, which in fact also demonstrates his uneasiness with “other members” of the State Council, ostensibly the Vice Premiers. Having Li Zhanshu as the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the NPC, the removal of names would be possible even when the NPC is not in session (闭会期间). We have seen how Premier Li Keqiang contradicted President Xi Jinping on poverty alleviation, when he said during a press briefing that “China has over 600 million people whose monthly income is barely 1,000 yuan (USD 140) and their lives have further been affected by the coronavirus pandemic”. On 11 March 2021, during a press briefing, Li Keqiang dropped yet another bombshell by declaring that there are over 200 million Chinese people doing “flexijobs” (灵活就业), implying that these many people are doing more than one or two jobs at a time in order to secure their livelihood. Premier Li Keqiang advocated that these people should be brought under the social security net and offered state subsidies. The above revelations of Li Keqiang demonstrate that he contradicts his boss’ line on poverty eradication in China. Therefore, Xi Jinping would be extremely cautious to the names recommended by Li Keqiang in the State Council. Though the possibility of Li Keqiang recommending someone not liked by Xi Jinping is remote, but even if it happens Xi could strike them down through new amendments.
Furthermore, the undercurrents of factional feud are visible in Xi Jinping clipping the wings of the Shanghai clique by way of striking hard on their investments in entities like Jack Ma’s Ant Group. It may be a matter of time when Vice Premiers like Han Zheng and Sun Chunlan are shown the door owing to their allegiance to the Shanghai clique. It is believed that Xi Jinping is extremely unhappy with the role the two played during Hong Kong’s democracy movement and the US-China trade war. Hu Chunhua, being from the League faction (团派), could be next in the line of fire. Liu He perhaps is the safest as he is Xi Jinping’s man and his economic advisor too. It is understood that it’s not only the Shangai clique that is at loggerheads with Xi Jinping, but some of the princelings (太子党) too have turned their back on him. Therefore, in the face of such undercurrents inside and outside the Party, Xi Jinping is further consolidating his power.
B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.