The Éminence Grise of Zhongnanhai
Image Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

The Éminence Grise of Zhongnanhai


A popular Chinese adage – “a fence is fixed by three stakes, a capable man is aided by three mates” – expresses the need for external assistance, regardless of one’s outstanding qualities. On the road to the pinnacle of power, none can achieve all goals single-handedly, especially in the Chinese context where weaving delicate webs of alliances is the sine qua non of ultimate political success.

In many respects, 2014 was a remarkable year in which Xi Jinping subjugated a number of his foes. Certainly he did not accomplish that feat alone; several of his acolytes deserve credit. The one who is currently receiving most of the media’s attention is none other than Wang Qishan, the gung-ho torchbearer of the anti-graft campaign.

But the spotlight should not be focused exclusively on the one who makes the loudest noise, for it is often the unnoticed ones who turn out to be the most puissant. If Wang grabs attention because of his charisma and unremitting verbal salvos directed at corrupt officials, another individual in Xi’s inner circle should be noted for his ability to keep a low profile under the watchful gaze of the global fourth estate.

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Known by observers as “the man who keeps secrets,” Li Zhanshu is a prominent member of the current ruling coterie. Li’s power base rests on the General Office of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee (he also holds several other key posts). The party chief’s personal secretariat, the ill-defined title of the Office shields many of its crucial functions that make the everyday life of Xi and other top leaders possible. Far from purely quotidian affairs, the General Office’s responsibilities include: 1) ensuring the proper implementation of the center’s policies and decrees, 2) managing encrypted communication for all party and state organs, 3) guaranteeing the safekeeping and transmission of confidential files and messages, 4) handling research, production, sales, and administration of commercial encryptions, 5) overseeing security services for the party leadership, 6) managing the medical team for top leaders, 7) collecting information for the center, 8) drafting and editing policy papers and memorandums as required, 9) storing and guarding classified documents, 10) undertaking any logistical work corresponding to the party leader’s daily duties. In plain words, the General Office is the agency that makes sure Xi can pursue his agenda without concern for his immediate surrounding. The director of this Office, nicknamed the “chief steward” by China watchers, is usually a man with unswerving loyalty to the general secretary. Although Li’s main task is not to formulate national policies, his interaction with Xi on a day-to-day basis makes him an influential member of the general secretary’s charmed circle. Therefore, it may be said that Li is above all the reticent heavyweight – the éminence grise of Zhongnanhai.

The undoing of Ling Jihua, the former General Office director and chief steward of Hu Jintao, is a reminder of this position’s value as well as vulnerability. Having said that, who is Li Zhanshu? What made Xi pick Li over other potentials? Moreover, what does the future hold for the imperial city’s éminence grise?

Born in 1950, Li once described himself as “bold and frank” yet “at times… hopelessly romantic.” Seemingly an unconventional candidate for such a sensitive job, he surprisingly has a lot in common with Xi. A native of Pingshan County, Hebei Province, Li hails from a “red family” of martyrs and party devotees. Li’s father was a loyal partisan who dutifully conducted underground work during the darkest days of the Chinese revolution. His uncle Li Zhengtong joined the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at a young age and made the ultimate sacrifice in the final year of the Chinese Civil War. His grandfather Li Zaiwen was a member of the party since its incipient year of 1927. Through dedicated service Li Zaiwen climbed the bureaucratic ladder until his demise during the Cultural Revolution.

Similar to Xi, Li’s family came up on the side of the persecuted during the last Maoist pandemonium that wreaked havoc on the party’s old guards. For a while, Li had to quit school, return to his home village, and pick up the shepherd’s crook. Perhaps like Xi, whose denial of a formal education only stimulated the desire to become cultured, Li was equally avid when it came to a quest for knowledge. After obtaining a recommendation from commune leaders to go on to education, Li studied hard and emerged at the top of his class, an achievement that paved the way forward as a career mandarin.

But the determining factor that drove Xi to select Li as his chief steward was neither their common status as “second generation red,” nor their parallel experiences coming of age amid the Cultural Revolution. The key reason behind Li’s rise to prominence is simply fidelity and established personal relations stretching back three decades. The pair have known each other since the early 1980s when serving as administrators in rural Hebei. Cross-county conferences familiarized the two men, both political greenhorns at the time. Later Xi transferred to posts in the prosperous southeastern coast, while Li stayed behind and led China’s interior provinces. The two remained connected. By supporting Li in winning privileged access to the party’s innermost sanctum during the 2012 power transition, Xi expressed a high degree of confidence in his old comrade. Li in return did not disappoint. His record so far speaks of merit, and he is making every effort to help Xi consolidate control. From pep talks at party meetings to published articles in official journals, Li has constantly paid homage to his liege, while calling on subordinate cadres to follow the party center with absolute loyalty.

To succeed in politics anywhere, one has to be on the right team at the right time. With a clean slate, and a daughter (Li Qianxin) far away from the center of party chicanery, the future for Li looks promising as the process of power centralization intensifies. A trusted deputy to the general secretary, Li is likely going to move up a notch in the coming 19th party congress, where Xi’s protégés are bound to occupy top-level positions. Following examples set by General Office predecessors; the éminence grise might even become a member of the politburo standing committee, if he manages to complete the current tenure free of incident.

Zi Yang is a M.A. candidate in the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown University. He currently serves as a research assistant at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, and is the former Managing Editor of the Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs.

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