DONALD RUMSFELD, a former American defence secretary, once delighted policy wonks everywhere by distinguishing between “known unknowns”—things we know we don’t know—and “unknown unknowns”. China’s political system is a known unknown. We know about the Communist Party and government but not much about how their leaders interact.
China’s system of government also contains something which is closer to an unknown unknown. This is the role of “leading small groups” (lingdao xiaozu): shadowy committees that often eclipse the power of more public political structures. For years, it was not even known how many there were, how often they met, who was in them or what they did. The situation is hardly clearer today. But research conducted by a Chinese scholar and two analysts at a German think-tank called the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) provides fresh insight into the groups and their make-up. It suggests that Xi Jinping, the country’s president, is using them in a new way.
Officially, the role of leading groups is to co-ordinate the work of the party and the government that serves it. Every country needs to keep the bits of its ruling system together; the bigger the system, the more it needs co-ordinating. China’s twin-engined arrangement is unusually extensive, so leading small groups have been an important feature of its politics since 1958, when the first one was set up.
Such committees can get out of control. The Cultural Revolution small group, created in 1966 and later run by Madame Mao, almost took over the country at one point. They also tend to proliferate and have to be cut back. According to Alice Miller of Stanford University, there were 44 groups in 1981, 19 in 1998 and 29 in 2009. They cover everything from Taiwan and Hong Kong to internet security, the legal system and “preserving stability”. Some provinces have their own small groups. Guangdong, in the south, for example, has one to promote manufacturing.
Zhou Wang of Nankai University in Tianjin says there are three kinds of group. The most important type formulates policy, such as the one for foreign affairs. Most of these date from the 1950s; they conduct research before big decisions are taken. Next is the sort that has a specific task and that will, in theory, cease functioning when the task is complete. Examples include groups dealing with the Three Gorges Dam (full operation of which began in 2012) or poverty alleviation (Mr Xi has set a target of eradicating extreme poverty by 2020). Last, there are short-term groups to deal with emergencies.
Under Mr Xi, the number of groups has risen. According to Jessica Batke and Matthias Stepan of MERICS, there were 45 leading small groups in May 2017. No fewer than 16 of them were set up by the president, even though, two years before he took over in 2012, the party issued guidelines saying there should be fewer new bodies. The president’s main innovation, though, has been to create what might be called super groups. The most important is called the Leading Small Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reform (Mr Xi presided over its 35th plenary meeting on May 23rd; officials up and down the country have been holding meetings ever since to study its host of pronouncements). A sign of this super group’s status is that, unlike other groups, it has a network of its own, with subgroups in every province. It even has sub-subgroups in counties, two levels of administration down.
The reform group does more than assist co-ordination. It has a permanent secretariat (most others borrow officials on an ad hoc basis). It writes many of Mr Xi’s speeches and drafts party documents. The group seems to play a central role in formulating economic policy. It was involved, for example, in every stage of drafting the current five-year plan, which is supposed to guide China’s development until 2020.
The Pecking order
Mr Xi uses such groups to advance his own authority. In the party’s pecking order, the body with the highest prestige is the Standing Committee of the Politburo. Its seven members were chosen five years ago, at the same time as Mr Xi was picked as leader: he was not in charge of selecting them. In contrast the small groups are packed with people who have worked with the president for years. MERICS believes that Li Zhanshu, the director of the party’s general office (ie, secretariat) and an ally of the president, leads a subgroup of the reform body and that he also serves on a new group overseeing national security. Liu He, Mr Xi’s chief economic adviser, is the head of another reform subgroup and serves on the small group on finance. And so on (see chart).
By stacking the committees with his allies, Mr Xi has diluted the power of the Standing Committee’s other members; they have to be mindful of their boss’s proxy presence in the small groups they lead. The reform super group in effect usurps the authority of the prime minister, Li Keqiang, who is supposed to be in charge of the economy (he is a deputy leader of the group, which Mr Xi chairs). Another super group, the national security commission, which Mr Xi set up in 2013 with himself as its chairman, ensures that he has the final say on such matters.
It is not clear whether Mr Xi will need to rely so much on these groups after a party congress which is due to be held later this year: the five-yearly meeting is expected to boost his power. But leading groups have long been a secretive part of an opaque political system. They have become central to the way Mr Xi governs China.