Analysis: Why Xi Jinping set up a Central Leading Group on the United Front Work?

August 17, 2015 By Tenzin Tseten*

On July 30, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decided to set up a leading group on the United Front Work.  Since his ascension to power, Xi Jinping has formed three important leading groups including this latest one. The two other leading groups are the National Security Commission and the Comprehensive Deepening of Reform, which appears to be temporary with its tenure expiring in 2020 when the reforms are implemented. The creation of these groups has further strengthened Xi’s clout.

There is no doubt that Xi has emerged as the most powerful leader in China since Deng Xiaoping. One of Xi’s most significant creations was the National Security Commission, which Jiang Zemin tried to establish but remained unsuccessful. The fundamental reason for his failure was lack of support from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which remains a major constituency in Chinese politics.

Xi has reportedly visited six military regions in addition to his frequent visits to military installations and military command posts to garner support and reinforce loyal to his leadership. Jiang reportedly visited one thousand military installations while regularly visiting PLA bases and meeting with PLA leaders. Meanwhile, Hu was seen as having weak ties with the PLA leadership. He reportedly visited only two military regions during his ten-year tenure.

Since Xi came to power, he has made the anti-corruption campaign his top domestic priority. By using this campaign; Xi has ensnared many senior leaders, including former domestic security tsar Zhou Yongkang and Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, both of whom were vice-chairmen of the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC). Experts argue that Xi could face retaliation from Zhou’s faction, who has once threatened Xi’s leadership.

Party elders have set an unwritten rule in which they could interfere in politics from behind the scenes and hold on to the reins of power long after their official retirement.China’s paramount leader Mao Zedong ruled China until his death in 1976. Deng Xiaoping held on as the chairman of the CMC for two years after his official retirement. Jiang did the same with Hu Jintao. Xi, however, managed to take the chairmanship of the CMC from Hu right after his appointment asthe general secretary of the Party.

Xi in his first term has outshadowed his two predecessors, case in example being the formation of the three significant leading groups and allowing himself to head two groups. But despite his success and popularity, his regime is still haunted by many challenges – internal and external – one of them being the issue of Tibet.

Many people believe that Beijing directly deals with Tibet. To some extent this notion could be valid. Beijing sets the minority policies but the concerned department under the command of the Central Committee of the CCP, the United Front Work Department (UFWD), directly deals with Tibetan affairs. Regarding policy implementation and coordination, the central leading small group or leading small group (LSG) on Tibet has the upper hand.The chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) usually becomes the head of the LSG on Tibet. Thus Yu Zhengsheng, Standing Committee member of the Politburo, replaced his predecessor Jia Qinglin, as head of the party’s central leading small groups on Tibet affairs and Zhou on Xinjiang affairs.

The Politburo’s decision to set up a new leading group on the United Front Work raises many questions.  However, before we discuss the issue further, it is of paramount importance to understand the LSG.

First created in 1958, LSG’s were used as informal bodies to advice the Politburo members on policy and to coordinate implementation of policy decisions made by the Politburo and supervised by the Secretariat. LSG’s have considerable influence on policymaking process because they represent the consensus of the leading members of state, party and military.(See Alice Miller, The CCP Central Committee’s Leading Small Groups, China Leadership Monitor, No. 26)

Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, said “In terms of input to the most important policy matters, they (LSG’s) are much more important and powerful than the ministries. The more important a policy matter, the more likely that it will be made by the top leadership supported by a relevant LSG of the Politburo.” (http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1409118/how-leading-small-groups-help-xi-jinping-and-other-party-leaders-exert

After the Politburo meeting held on July 30, the state media announced the formulation of directives (solyig) for the central UFW, but withheld the names of officials who will administer the group. If Xi decides to hold on to the post of chairman this will further highlights the importance of Tibetan affairs for the current PRC leadership. Yu Zhengsheng will most likely become the deputy chairman since he heads all the agencies responsible for minority issues, including Tibetan affairs.

According to Professor Zhu Lijia of the National School of Administration, “Now, our Party historical position, facing the internal and external situation, is shouldering significant changes in our mission and tasks. The more we change, the more the United Front should develop, and the more United Front work will be done well.” (See ICT report, August 12, 2015, Major troop movements in Tibet; hardline approach to Dalai Lama in key policy talks)

This group’s main responsibility is to monitor the United Front Work and focus on policy implementation and to conduct a research on major policies related to them. In fact, the decision to set up a leading group and Xi’s call for unity with non-Party entities, oversees Chinese, religious leaders, outstanding intellectuals and private entrepreneurs, reflects Xi’s dissatisfaction with the work of the central UFWD under the supervision of Sun Chunlan, one of the only two female members in the Politburo.

We also shouldn’t ignore the timing of the meeting, which was convened a few weeks before the 50thanniversary of the establishment of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Also the Tibet Work Forum, in which senior leaders from the party, state and military gather to decide Tibet’s fate, is said to be around the corner. It is not yet known when the Work Forum on Tibet will be convened, but China analysts believe that the forum will be held before the TAR’s 50th anniversary. However, Claude Arpi, author of numerous books on Tibet, thinks that the recent Politburo meetings presided over by Xi has replaced the Work Forum on Tibet. If Beijing summons a Work Forum on Tibet, it will be the sixth since the first forum held in 1980.

This writer thinks that Beijing’s Tibet policy has remained unchanged since the last forum held in 2010, which focused on the region’s long-term stability. Beijing still continues anti-separatist hardline policies in Tibet. Since May, Xi has called several closed-door meetings on different issues, most notably on national security and united front work. Due to the secretive nature of those meetings and the paucity of details, it is difficult to draw a clear picture. However, one thing is certain that Beijing is upgrading and improving the effectiveness of the United Front Work. [PDF] [Word]

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Tenzin Tseten is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.

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