NEWS ANALYSIS

Analysts abuzz over President Xi Jinping's picks for China's new bodies

Appointments offer peek into politics of Communist Party's inner circle

 
Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 23, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

CHINESE President Xi Jinping's pick of deputies in China's national security commission and a reform-focused task force he heads is drawing scrutiny from analysts hoping to peek into the black box that is the Communist Party.

Premier Li Keqiang's inclusion as Mr Xi's deputy in the two bodies, for instance, has surprised some. China's premier typically does not have a hand in defence matters and Mr Li was also not deeply involved in the drafting of the party's reform blueprint.

The new national security commission will be headed by Mr Xi, with Mr Li and Mr Zhang Dejiang - No. 3 in the party's hierarchy and head of China's Parliament - as vice-chairmen.

Similarly, Mr Xi heads the Central Leading Group for Comprehensive Reform set up to spearhead economic and social reforms, said to be China's most ambitious in 30 years. Mr Li, Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli and Mr Liu Yunshan, the ideology and propaganda tsar, are deputies.

Observers scrutinised the slew of appointments made last week for their possible significance, especially Mr Li's, in the light of recent reports suggesting that Mr Xi was sidelining him by hogging the limelight in areas typically helmed by the premier.

Hong Kong-based Chinese politics expert Willy Lam said Mr Li has no interest in national security issues, so his presence in the security body is "symbolic". Thus, his appointment could reflect Mr Xi's desire to dispel impressions that he is sidelining his No. 2.

"This is no good for unity at the top. So in a sense you can say Mr Xi is giving some face to his No. 2," Professor Lam told The Straits Times.

But others disagreed, saying Mr Li's inclusion in the two new important bodies was a given, with his deputy position simply reflecting his subordinate position to Mr Xi even as the top leader consolidates his power.

The wide-ranging powers the security body will be given, likely covering both external and domestic security affairs that could touch on the economic and financial sectors, make Mr Li's inclusion a necessity, they add.

"I don't think his presence is symbolic, especially given the at least partial focus on internal security that would involve agencies within the State Council (that Mr Li heads)," said Massachusetts Institute of Technology's associate professor of political science Taylor Fravel.

"Thus, it would have been odd if Mr Li was excluded," he said.

University of Nottingham analyst Steve Tsang said he had expected Mr Li's appointments.

"The announcements merely confirm that Mr Xi and Mr Li are working together. The collective leadership model of consultative Leninism is still working as it is meant to," he added.

Observers also weighed in on the appointment of the other Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) members.

Professor Li Mingjiang of Nanyang Technological University said legislature chief Zhang Dejiang could have been drafted as a deputy in the security body to enact laws or approve special powers in emergency situations.

But the exclusion of top political adviser Yu Zhengsheng from the security body, given his oversight of restive Xinjiang and Tibet regions, has sparked speculation from experts like Prof Lam about his health. He said the omission was a "surprise", although he is uncertain of the reason for it.

Mr Zhang Gaoli, seen as a protege of former President Jiang Zemin, was also likely picked for the reform group because of his extensive experience in leading some of China's most dynamic economic regions, experts say. Mr Zhang served as the party chief of Shenzhen from 1997 to 2001, when he oversaw the development of the special economic zone.

The appointment of Mr Liu is also fitting - his portfolio as propaganda chief allows him to push the reform agenda in the face of resistance from interest groups.

In all, experts say the presence of five PSC members, China's most powerful men, in the two outfits shows that Mr Xi is giving top priority to their work.

esthert@sph.com.sg

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