OPINION

Xi rules

The Chinese President further consolidates his power through an administrative rejig

China is no stranger to reform. Over the past three decades the structure of the government has changed at least half a dozen times. But the scale of reform pushed through this month is comparable to that of 1998 when Zhu Rongji as Premier shut or merged 15 ministries as part of a major liberalisation drive. This time, Prime Minister Li Keqiang has closed six ministries, two ministry-level agencies and seven vice ministry-level departments. Beijing has also created a powerful anti-corruption agency, while the Vice President, till now holding a ceremonial post, is expected to play an active role in policymaking. The stamp of Xi Jinping, re-elected President for five more years with no term limit, is visible in these reforms. A big decision is the empowerment of the Environment Ministry, which will fight air, water and soil pollution, a top priority for Mr. Xi. Two of his close aides have been appointed to key posts — Wang Qishan, an anti-corruption crusader, is now the Vice President, and Liu He, the President’s top fiscal adviser, is a Vice Premier. Mr. Wang is expected to play a leading role in China’s engagement with the U.S. at a time when fears of a trade war loom. Mr. Liu is to head the recently created Financial Stability and Development Commission, which will coordinate between the banking and securities regulators and work towards trimming China’s debt burden. This takes away some of the powers of the Prime Minister, who has traditionally been China’s top economic official. The National Supervision Commission, which is ranked above the judiciary, will have sweeping powers to fight corruption, including the power to detain suspects for up to six months without access to lawyers.

The common thread in these changes is the strengthening of Mr. Xi’s full-blown control over party and government. Earlier this month, by amending the Constitution to remove the two-term limit on the Presidency that was introduced during Deng Xiaoping’s time, the Chinese Communist Party signalled that it was moving away from the “collective leadership” motto to a new era under Mr. Xi. With the latest measures, he is consolidating his hold. The political stability that China has enjoyed over the last two and a half decades was a result of high and sustained economic growth coupled with reform. By concentrating so much power in his hands, Mr. Xi has risked reversing the changes that have become institutionalised over the last three decades. He may enjoy a measure of popularity and have the support of the party for now, but such concentration of power is bound to engender opposition and criticism. His decision to lift presidential term limits has already triggered an uproar on China’s social media networks, prompting the authorities to censor a host of words and phrases, including Animal Farm , the title of George Orwell’s dystopian novel. Mr. Xi will ignore these intimations of discontent only at his own risk.

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