The Declining Influence of Politburo Standing Committee Members and the Growing Strength of the Central Party Bureaucracy

I am pleased to present the first Sinocism weekend edition featuring expert guest commentary. There is a short survey to fill out once you have finished reading, to help set the direction for what I hope will eventually become a regular weekly edition.

Timothy Heath (full bio here) is a senior defense and international analyst at the RAND Corp. He has over 15 years’ experience as a specialist on China and is the author of the book, “China’s New Governing Party: Political Renewal and the Pursuit of National Rejuvenation” (2014) published by Ashgate.

Tim’s essay looks at reforms that have strengthened the Party bureaucracy. Much analysis of and punditry about Chinese politics focuses on elite leadership factions and conflict, and while those can not be ignored I agree with Tim that building an analytical framework about Chinese politics around those issues is far from sufficient to explain how things work in Zhongnanhai.

Despite the apparent turmoil in the months before the November 2012 18th Party Congress the meeting resulted in what looks to have been the cleanest transfer of power in decades. Since then we have seen Xi consolidate power much faster than most observers expected and the Party push forward with a corruption crackdown (which I wrote about in July in the post The Corruption Crackdown) that is much broader and more intense than most predicted. Is Xi’s success solely a result of his political skills and ruthlessness, or is there something else going on as well?

Enough from me, here is Tim’s essay:

Observers seeking to anticipate the future trajectory of Chinese strategy and policy should focus on the relationship between the General Secretary and the central party bureaucracy, the real locus of power in the political system today. A decade of political reforms led by Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping have strengthened the ability of the central party bureaucracy to assist in the formulation and implementation of national level strategy and policy. These reforms have laid the groundwork for the pursuit of systemic and structural change that has already become the hallmark of the Xi administration. The same trends have also constrained the ability of individual PBSC members to challenge the general trend of policy.

It is commonly believed that an incoming General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can enact whatever policies he chooses, so long as the top seven or nine leaders of the PBSC agree. If they do not agree, conventional wisdom presumes, then it is unlikely that the leaders will get much done. Such, at any rate, was the prevailing view at the start of Xi Jinping’s tenure. Analyses published at the time of Xi’s ascension confidently predicted that he would prove weak and achieve little, due to the challenge of gaining consensus among PBSC members of such varying backgrounds. Outcomes starkly at odds with such forecasts have done little to deter experts from making additional assertions following the same logic. It is not hard to find analyses today that claim Xi’s anti-corruption drive is fundamentally a power grab that is alienating fellow PBSC members and thus setting Xi up for long term failure once his peers turn against him.

Xi may well fail in his reform agenda for a variety of reasons, but lack of consensus in the PBSC will not be the primary driver. The importance of consensus for enacting policy between the top seven leaders who comprise the PBSC is overstated. Consensus remains necessary, at least on the surface, for the most important policy initiatives such as the pursuit of structural and systemic reforms under which the current anti-corruption drive is nestled. However, in reality, PBSC members are increasingly constrained in their ability to undermine or drastically change the general direction of policy. For the overwhelming majority of the country’s policy directives, what really counts is the degree of consensus within the central party bureaucracy, or staff organizations (i.e., the key staff bodies and organizations primarily in the Central Committee, such as the General Office, Central Policy Research Office, Central Party School, Organization Department, etc.) and between the same central party staff organizations and the General Secretary. Individuals who seek to anticipate the future trajectory of PRC policy-making would be well served to master the publicly available documents produced by these bureaucracies in support of the General Secretary.

The weakening of the power of individual Politburo Standing Committee members and the growing importance of the relationship between the General Secretary and the central support staff owes partly to Xi’s personal initiative, but primarily to major, long-term changes in the nature of CCP rule. Because the retreat from revolutionary politics has undercut the most compelling argument for party dictatorship, the CCP increasingly bases its legitimacy on the claim to uniquely possess a superior intellectual methodology that alone can ensure sound governance and China’s rejuvenation as a great power, as well as the results generated from this supposedly infallible methodology. In the words of Xi Jinping, the CCP’s political theory is “the only correct theory,” the adherence to which alone enables the party to “unite and lead the people to achieve national rejuvenation.”

Consequently, the CCP must continually invest as much energy to shoring up the impression that its policies are based on a scientifically rigorous methodology, which it calls its “theory system of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” as it does to develop sound policies that meet the needs of its people. The most essential individuals and organizations in the CCP today are those who can articulate the socialist theory system in a clear, consistent, and “scientifically rigorous” manner, as well as those who can develop sound policies that achieve the party’s objectives in a manner that validates the theory. It should be apparent already that a handful of busy individuals, especially those given extremely broad policy portfolios, lack the time and expertise to carry out this work. The individuals best positioned to meet these needs are those analysts, theorists, staff members, and experts who reside primarily within the various units of the Central Committee. These individuals collaborate on a continual basis to build the common understanding about China’s situation, develop theory concepts to guide policy, and outline the technical details of policy to shape elite opinion and support senior decision makers. The more effectively these staff organizations do their jobs, the easier it becomes for the Politburo Standing Committee to approve their recommendations and direct the implementation of policy accordingly. One consequence is that the consensus built by the central party bureaucracy under the supervision of the General Secretary has prevailed, and will likely continue to prevail, in setting the course for the nation’s policies.

Another consequence has been a constraining of the power of PBSC members. To drive policy in a dramatically different direction, PBSC leaders need to develop their own teams of theorists, analysts, and policy experts. Chinese leaders have shown little inclination to empower individual members of the PBSC to overturn the consensus built by the central support staff under the General Secretary’s direction. The reduction in number of PBSC members from nine to seven, at the start of Xi’s tenure, suggests that even then the pursuit of PBSC level consensus was increasingly viewed as more of a hindrance than a help to achieving party goals. More dramatically, the case of Zhou Yongkang demonstrates in a vivid fashion just how vulnerable members of the PBSC have become. Overall, the trend in recent years has towards a strengthening of the General Secretary’s influence, and of the central support staff as the primary instrument of his power. While this consolidation has become most apparent under Xi, in many ways his tenure represents an intensification of trends well under way in the Hu era. The most important of these trends include: 1) an expansion and elevation of the central party bureaucracy’s role in policy making; 2) the systematization of the party’s ideology; and 3) the standardization of the party’s policy making processes. These reforms have generally strengthened the influence of political and technical experts in the central party bureaucracy and constrained the power of individual Politburo Standing Committee leaders.

Expansion and elevation of Central Committee organizations in policy making. Both Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping invested considerable time and resources to strengthen their control of the central support staff. They also expanded and elevated the role of these staffs in the policy making process. The introduction of Politburo study sessions and expanded meetings in the 2002 time frame, for example, provided a regular venue for party experts to coach, mentor, and teach senior leaders, a function managed by the Central Policy Research Office (CPRO) and Central Committee General Office. Under Xi, the CPRO has also been designated the administrator of the Central Reform Office, which manages the all important Central Leading Group for Deepening Comprehensive Reform, while the General Office administers the National Security Commission. Xi has also added two departments to the CPRO to handle the expansion in responsibility. Similarly, while head of the Central Party School (CPS) for ten years prior to his ascent to General Secretary, Hu oversaw a major expansion of the school. Xi also served for five years as director of CPS for the five years prior to his ascent. The CPS has become a primary party think tank for theory work, as well as the premier training ground for senior leaders. In 2003, for example, senior leaders directed the CPS to begin an annual training program in the most important political ideas and policy priorities for the nation’s provincial and ministerial level leaders.

Systematization of party theory. In 2004, Hu oversaw a major overhaul in party ideology to render it more functional and pragmatic, resulting in the theory system of socialism with Chinese characteristics. This multi-year effort systematized the various elements of the party ideology, keeping and refining those elements that could be useful for the new policy agenda and discarding the less useful parts. The end result was a modern ideology better suited to serving the CCP’s needs as a governing party. However, it has also empowered experts in the Central Committee as the resident authorities on how to define and articulate an increasingly technical, systematic, and specialized ideology.

Standardization of party policy making processes. Beginning in 2002, the party saw a great expansion in the numbers and types of CCP rules, policies, and procedures to govern most aspects of party activity, to include recruitment, promotion, evaluation, and decision-making. To support policy making, the 16th Party Congress in 2002 also introduced and standardized a number of strategic objectives (zhanlüe mubiao), major strategic tasks (zhongda zhanlüe renwu), policy documents (such as the annual “Document Number One” for rural reform), and high level training events aimed at forging consensus behind the policy agenda set by the central leadership. The process of drafting key strategy and policy documents, to include Party Congress reports and Plenum decisions, has become increasingly routinized and the work largely led by experts in the central party bureaucracy. It also manages the training and education of cadres to carry out the agenda accordingly.

After over a decade of such ideological and political reform, the result has been a stronger central party bureaucracy capable of providing the cohesion, vision, and depth of expertise needed to help senior leaders carry out an expanded policy agenda aimed at providing more effective governance and realizing China’s rejuvenation. Under Xi, the trends begun under Hu have reached a new level of intensity. The relentless promotion of Xi as the most important leader among his peers, and the accretion of power in the hands of Xi through the creation of the National Security Commission and numerous small leading groups to carry out structural reforms, represents the culmination of these trends. The more Xi takes on responsibilities and new powers, after all, the more he depends on the experts, specialists, and staff bodies of the central support staff to prepare and oversee the policies carried out under his direction. The strengthening of the central party bureaucracy has enabled Xi’s administration to withstand the shocks of the Bo Xilai case, the arrest of senior officials such as Zhou and former CMC vice chair Xu Caihou, and the turmoil generated by the pervasive anti-corruption campaign.

The evolving pattern of politics suggests that the the common understanding of the relationship between the General Secretary, PBSC members, and the central support staff needs to be refined. General Secretary Xi and PBSC members continue to provide oversight of all policy work. The PBSC members also play a critical role in handling day-to-day decisions for their respective portfolios. However, the central party bureaucracy, under the General Secretary’s leadership, largely defines the “default” mode of policy through a dense network of mutually reinforcing theory, analysis, and central directives. PBSC members continue to play an important role through participation in the central leading groups, but the precise nature of the interactions remains hidden from view. What is clear is that the consensus forged through all of this activity, manifested most importantly in key policy documents such as speeches by the General Secretary and in Party Congress reports and plenum decisions, plays a decisive role in setting China’s policy agenda. Analysis of such documents will therefore likely continue to provide the most reliable insights into future trends of PRC policy.

Ironically, just when the study of Chinese official documents, political processes, and ideology produced by the central party bureaucracy was becoming increasingly essential to understanding PRC politics, much of the China watching community turned its attention elsewhere. The prevailing mode of analysis remains focused on the personal networks, factions, interest groups, “princeling” connections, and individual backgrounds of PBSC members. While interesting, such analysis will continue to provide much less useful insight regarding the future trajectory of PRC policies. Meanwhile articles that have examined important policy documents merely reveal how much the study of such sources has deteriorated. One analysis published in 2012 dismissed analysis of Party Congress reports as a waste of time, asserting that such events serve as little more than an exercise in “tedious sloganeering” and in “pumping up the party faithful.” It concluded that observers would “need to look elsewhere” for clues as to the Xi administration’s likely policy agenda. Tellingly, the article offered no suggestion as to where that superior source of insight might lie.

No better source has emerged. To more effectively anticipate policy developments, observers should deepen their study of the analysis, theory, and policy documents produced by the central support staff and frequently issued under Xi’s name. The good news is that many of the most relevant and useful documents are widely available on the Internet. With careful study and mastery of these sources, analysts have within their grasp the means to better understand PRC intentions regarding strategy and policy.

Tim Heath is a senior defense and international analyst at the RAND Corporation. He is the author of the book, China’s New Governing Party Paradigm: Political Renewal and the Pursuit of National Rejuvenation, published by Ashgate (2014).

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9 thoughts on “The Declining Influence of Politburo Standing Committee Members and the Growing Strength of the Central Party Bureaucracy

  1. “Ironically, just when the study of Chinese official documents, political processes, and ideology produced by the central party bureaucracy was becoming increasingly essential to understanding PRC politics, much of the China watching community turned its attention elsewhere.”–this is the critical takeaway, not only essential to understanding PRC politics, but also to the business people and lawyers to understanding how Party/government policies will have an impact on their business through government enforcement.

  2. Is this setup different from what exists in the US or other Western or functioning democratic states?
    What are its equivalents?

    Don’t these other countries also have Departments which rely on official Think-tanks, Policy and strategy forming groups?

    Whats is the difference, other than the non-transparent nature of the CCP apparatus.

  3. Unfortunately, few analysts read Chinese at the level necessary to understand “the communist eight legged essay style (中共八股文) in which documents from the central party bureaucracy, or staff organizations (i.e., the key staff bodies and organizations primarily in the Central Committee, such as the General Office, Central Policy Research Office, Central Party School, Organization Department, etc.) are written.

  4. First of all props to our host for the scheme of the longer form essay in the newsletter, then the link to feedback survey, which then links on to this post/comments. Excellent.

    I am not qualified to comment on Heath’s essay, but on the other hand the major gist of the essay seems to be that not many people except uber scholars of contemporary CCP official bureaucracy output are qualified to comment about China… This at least is not surprising as basically every uber scholar of CCP Midrash thinks and says that.

    This final statement had me completely ROFLMAO (either as a very clever satire or even more if the author is unaware of what he sounds like):

    “To more effectively anticipate policy developments, observers should deepen their study of the analysis, theory, and policy documents produced by the central support staff and frequently issued under Xi’s name. … With careful study and mastery of these sources, analysts have within their grasp the means to better understand PRC intentions regarding strategy and policy.”

    Sounds like someone has spent way too much time imbibing said CCP crypto guff?

    I also loved the quiet observation here:

    “The most essential individuals and organizations in the CCP today are those who can articulate the socialist theory system in a clear, consistent, and “scientifically rigorous” manner, as well as those who can develop sound policies that achieve the party’s objectives in a manner that validates the theory.”

    …in other words the secondary guys are the ones who actually implement the theory, and such policy implementation serves primarily to validate the theory. Sounds correct!

    Finally the article sets up saying everyone and his dog claims Xi’s current work “is fundamentally a power grab that is alienating fellow PBSC members”… and then the entire rest of the article shows precisely that this is what is happening… centralization of power, ossification / obfuscation of power channels in hidden Byzantine bureaux, secret languages of meaningless doctrine and theory… all ultimately with one relevant result, the emasculation of the PBSC and the creation of an alternative network of civil servant eunuchs to keep the channel of power clear.

    Ultimately, is it *that* important for most China watchers to understand the intricacies of the CPRO, CPS, Central Leading Group for Deepening Comprehensive Reform, and so on… when the net result is exactly the same as the millenia-old and “child could understand it” soap opera of power at the top… and that power getting better at stretching down to the bottom…

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