Victor Shih

Since Deng Xiaoping China’s leaders did have relatively limited power. But all that is changing under current president Xi Jinping, writes policy analyst Victor Shih at the Policy Forum, and that might not be good news. “The policy-making environment has changed completely.”

Victor Shih:

The latest plenum in China further shored up President Xi Jinping’s personal authority in the party by labelling him the “core” of the central leadership. Furthermore, the plenum called on all party members to “raise their core awareness and awareness for unity,” – essentially that everyone in the ruling party should act strictly in accordance to the instructions of Xi Jinping. But is that necessarily good for policy-making in today’s China?

During the previous Hu Jintao administration, although Premier Wen Jiabao had jurisdiction over economic affairs, he always had to be mindful of other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, who were at least his equal, criticising his policies. This power dynamic provided incentives for the technocrats in the State Council to propose a variety of policy objectives, as well as policies.

As a result, policy discussions were lively as technocrats and experts from the various ministries and think tanks appealed to different elite audiences. To be sure, the debates likely delayed decisions in some cases, but the more decentralised decision-making model also led to a greater variety of ideas, as well as an important self-correction mechanism. When bad outcomes emerged from a given policy, a subset of technocrats quickly pointed out the mistake, even if it meant offending Premier Wen. Because Premier Wen was checked by other elites and because he did not have unilateral authority over mid- and high- level appointments, even more junior technocrats dared to criticise his policies in the belief that the higher-level elites could shield them from any retaliatory action.

With Xi’s consolidation of power and the extension of his jurisdiction to include economic affairs through his chairmanship of the Leading Group on Comprehensively Deepening Reform (LGCDR), the policy-making environment has changed completely.

More at the Policy Forum.

Victor Shih is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers’ request form.

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