Zhou Yongkang’s Successor
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Zhou Yongkang’s Successor

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China’s security chief, Zhou Yongkang, stands astride the sprawling security apparatus from the Central Political-Legal Committee. As a Politburo Standing Committee member, Zhou is said to have a great deal of autonomy as his ostensible boss, President Hu Jintao, is only “first among equals.” But the 18th Party Congress this autumn may see Zhou’s position downgraded for his successor (most likely Meng Jianzhu) in a shift that may also prompt additional reshuffling of portfolios in the standing committee.

At this point, it’s doubtful China’s leaders have made any final agreements about the makeup of the next Politburo. Still, thinking through the conceivable scenarios and their implications is a worthwhile exercise that can help shed light on some of the assumptions about the nature of Chinese politics.

The Central Political-Legal Committee chair has been a Politburo Standing Committee position since Chen Pixian took over the position from Politburo member Peng Zhen in the early 1980s. However, with one exception, its holders in the Reform Era have typically been at the end of their careers, making it a terminal position. Presumably, controlling the police, domestic intelligence, the procuratorate, and prisons give this position a lot of power as far as the ordinary Chinese citizen is concerned, but the terminal nature of this position suggests there’s little innately powerful about the committee that precludes downgrading it.

There are at least three reasons that make this worth considering.

First, critics of China’s security-first preserving stability policy think there are perverse effects that come from letting the internal security services oversee efforts to ensure political and social stability. The more tightly they attempt to monitor and control who says and does what, the more likely Chinese citizens are to be angered by the security services activities.

Second, conventional wisdom is that it would take a strongman or radically different factional alignment to reduce the size of the standing committee. With Hu not necessarily able to exert control over his senior colleagues, only a factional realignment could allow for such a change. Although Hu and his likely successor Vice President Xi Jinping have long been considered to be on opposite ends of the political spectrum, there are signs the two may have reconciled over the need to reform the Chinese Communist Party because of the danger of official corruption. Official publications of the Central Party School, which Xi heads, also recently criticized the Central Political-Legal Committee’s handling of preserving stability and, by extension, Zhou.

The key complaint in a Study Times article, entitled “Who Will Manage Social Management,” was that the Political-Legal Committee had overstepped its bounds and confused domestic governance. The implication was that preserving stability work – currently under the authority of the security system – needed to be brought under a broader policy umbrella not driven entirely by security concerns. Short of handing the stability reins over to the CCP general secretary, the only way this could happen is to downgrade Zhou’s position to the Politburo level.

Third, the ouster of Bo Xilai and the resulting controversy over the security apparatus appears to have resurfaced early-Reform Era norms about the apolitical nature of the security services. And Public Security Minister and State Councilor Meng Jianzhu, the man best positioned to take over Zhou’s position, is decidedly political in the wrong way.

Although there are a number of reasons to think Meng is a solid security professional within the CCP context, his background in Shanghai suggests why he may not be a popular choice for the standing committee – a helicopter ascent that would see him skip from the Central Committee past the Politburo. Meng served as a senior Shanghai official under Wu Bangguo and Huang Ju’s leadership of the city. The latter, especially, has been tied to high levels of official corruption, which, in the event of a Hu-Xi pact against corruption, might be a disqualifying connection for standing committee members.

So, what would a downgrade of the Central Political-Legal Committee chair mean for the upper echelons of Chinese politics and governance?

First and foremost, lowering Zhou’s position to a Politburo slot when he retires almost certainly would mean lowering another standing committee position along with it. Without any established way to break a deadlock, the standing committee would need to have an odd number of positions, dropping it from nine to seven.

This could have two implications. First, some positions might follow the Political-Legal Committee down to the Politburo level and, second, portfolios might need to be rethought for seven standing committee members.

In addition, dropping two standing committee slots could exacerbate the problem of an overburdened leadership constrained by an institutional structure/capacity better suited for the challenges of the 1970s.

This added pressure suggests observers consider the possibility of even more significant reshuffling of leadership portfolios if the CCP shrinks the Politburo Standing Committee, if for no other reason than dropping security and propaganda from this level could leave two sprawling but vital policy systems adrift or fragmented among more equal political players. (China has dramatically expanded its overseas news and propaganda efforts as well as the internal security bureaucracy).

Alternatively, downgrading the Central Political-Legal Committee chair and its operational control over the domestic security and intelligence apparatus could offer a way to integrate their activities into a broad policy framework. The Central Party School’s critique of Zhou highlighted the problem that preserving stability policies overlap with other ministries and activities outside the security framework. The Preserving Stability Leading Small Group, which establishes the overall guidance (fangzhen) for maintaining stability activities of national, provincial, and local government elements, conceivably could be reconfigured to take on a broader remit, making security a single, rather than the primary, component of preserving stability work.

Whatever the outcome of the 18th Party Congress and the future of the Political-Legal Committee, all signs point toward the tremendous uncertainty surrounding the power transfer to the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese leaders. The individual selections and the status of different policy systems has important implications for how the CCP will govern China. It’s not just about the personalities, but also how the system functions and paper flows.

While there may be reason to believe the Political-Legal Committee will be downgraded after Zhou’s retires following the 18th Party Congress, the potential changes control over important instruments of CCP power could derail this effort, if indeed the rumors are true.

Peter Mattis is editor of the Jamestown Foundation's "China Brief."

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