China's New Cabinet: A Promising Future
By Yongnian Zheng

China's New Cabinet: A Promising Future

Mar. 15, 2023  |     |  0 comments

Editor’s notes:

The National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) are critical events in China's political sphere, offering insight into the country's current status and future prospects, which has garnered international attention. In his first press conference, China’s new Premier Li Qiang expounded on the government's policy of "reform for development and opening up" with a composed, pragmatic, and distinctive attitude, which has raised people's expectations for the new administration and its policies. Li emphasized that the government should be an innovative executor when it comes to enhancing its construction. This article interprets China's new cabinet from the perspectives of institutions, personnel, and policies. It highlights the crucial signals to keep an eye on during the two sessions and press conference.

Institutions: Ensuring Effective Governance

During the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) sessions, personnel appointments and new policy intiatives received much attention from both domestic and international observers. This is not difficult to understand. As the saying goes, "New people, new policies." The unveiling of a new government is naturally important for the Chinese people. Moreover, as the world's second-largest economy, China's internal development inevitably has a huge external impact, so it is natural for the international community to be concerned. However, in the attention paid to the NPC and CPPCC, the importance of "institutional reform" seems to have been overlooked. Institutional reform is even more critical than personnel appointments and new policy initiatives because it provides a political background for the latter. Furthermore, it is also necessary to pay special attention to whether China's institutional construction keeps pace with the times. In many countries, their systems have encountered significant problems because they could not keep up with changes in the social and economic environment. Since the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the party has emphasized institutional building. Institutional construction has been the central theme, from focusing on anti-corruption and advocating for clean governance after the 18th Congress to concentrating on party building and institutional construction after the 19th Congress to the government restructuring after the 20th Congress. These major institutional reforms should be the focus of attention.

Although the media frequently mentions the procedures for nominating candidates for the President, Premier, and Vice-Premier positions, their significance is often ignored. Proceduralization is crucial for institutional development. Chinese traditional culture places great emphasis on protocol, which is manifested in proceduralization.

Moreover, the importance placed on these procedures reflects a more significant institutional reform, namely, the institutional embodiment of the CCP's most crucial organizational principle – Democratic Centralism.

For a long time, the ruling party has been exploring the best embodiment of the democratic centralism system, answering the question of "where to be democratic and where to be centralized." Some Western media often use the term "centralization" to describe the 20th National Congress and the Two Sessions, understanding them through the Western concept of "separation of powers." They often conclude that China lacks opposing opinions and checks and balances. This view does not align with Western reality and cannot explain China's political development.

China is pursuing institutional modernization but is certainly not westernizing its institutions. Western preferences for non-Western political systems often present two options. The first option is a multi-party system, considered optimal, as the West measures the "democracy" it defines through rotating parties in power. The second option is a suboptimal choice of a leadership group that is full of contradictions and conflicts, even oligarchic politics. However, if these two situations occur in vast developing countries outside the West, it often results in political instability and underdeveloped socioeconomics. This is why China is not following the Western path.

China's experience suggests that the presiding team, whether it's the Political Bureau Standing Committee or various ministries of the State Council, should consist of members with a high level of consensus instead of resembling a Western-style "parliament." If the Political Bureau Standing Committee is considered a "political group," then the State Council should be a team that executes policies. The Western idea of "checks and balances" even does not explain Western politics. In both presidential and cabinet systems, the head of government holds power to form a cabinet. For instance, the US President has the authority to appoint all cabinet members and ambassadors and operates under the spoils system. Although in theory, the US is a model of "separation of powers," it is difficult to implement this principle in political reality. The politicization of the judiciary has undermined the so-called "judicial independence". Regarding legislation, if a single party controls both houses, they almost monopolize political resources; however, if both parties are evenly matched, it results in mutually vetoing "veto parties" and leads to an ineffective government.

Since the 20th Party Congress, there have been significant changes in the governing team. From the perspective of political science, a "cabinet" system is forming. The governing team emphasizes efficiency, and once policies are formed they must be implemented. In such a large country as China, if the executive power is too decentralized, each will inevitably do its own thing. The principle of "centralization" must be reflected in governance.

To ensure policy execution is centralized, democracy in policy formation becomes crucial. But where does democracy fit in? China has introduced the concept of "full-process democracy" in recent years, which requires democratic decision-making procedures at all levels of the central and local governments. Platforms like the Central Committee meetings, NPC meetings, and CPPCC meetings at the central level promote democracy where various social organizations (including think tanks) can express their views. Policy formation must be democratic and scientific, but policy execution must be centralized. This is the case with all good and effective political systems worldwide.

China has been exploring the best way to embody democratic centralism. The Two Sessions are a higher level institutionalization in this regard. While high-quality economic development is always discussed, high-quality system construction is equally important. The process of democratic centralism is crucial, and essential personnel and policies must follow procedures. China's institutional advantage lies in having both democracy and centralization where they are needed. Against the backdrop of such large-scale institutional reform, it is meaningful to examine personnel appointments and policymaking.

The recent reform of the State Council's institutions has been part of the process of China's institutional modernization since the 20th Party Congress. The reform aims to boost the motivation of the central and local governments and society. Nearly all system and institutional reforms reflect both centralization and decentralization principles. For example, the proposal to review the State Council's institutional reform plan includes the establishment of the Central Science and Technology Commission. While establishing this commission highlights the central government's emphasis on science and technology, Western perspectives only see it as "centralization." However, decentralization is also at play, as many technologies are allocated to various functional departments, including the Ministry of Agriculture, which gives implementing departments the power to act. Therefore, centralization and decentralization co-occur. The same applies to the financial sector reform, where we must promote science and technological innovation in finance while ensuring financial stability and orderly development to avoid major issues.

Personnel: “Innovative Executors”

At least two aspects characterize the team of Premier Li Qiang. First, most members have backgrounds in science, engineering, and economics, "technocrats," as referred to in academic circles. After the reform and opening up, these "technocrats" were once the most prominent feature of China's ruling team. This feature has re-emerged after being weakened for many years. Second, the team has a wealth of work experience at both local and central levels, as well as in coastal and inland areas.

Premier Li's work experience gives people a sense of “hope for the future.” Like Xi Jinping, Li rose from the lowest level of Chinese society. He started as a worker, passed the entrance exam, and went on to study agricultural machinery at Zhejiang Agricultural University. He began his political career at the grassroots level and then served as the Secretary of the CCP Wenzhou Municipal Committee, the Deputy Secretary of the Zhejiang Provincial CCP Committee, the Secretary of the Jiangsu Provincial CCP Committee, and finally, the Secretary of the Shanghai Municipal CCP Committee. He has extensive experience in local governance, particularly in Zhejiang, where he emphasized the importance of the private economy. In Zhejiang, he stressed that "the future of Zhejiang's private economy depends on the economic subject, especially whether private entrepreneurs are still active and creative." At the press conference of the Two Sessions, Li's statement on the development of private enterprises was received with great attention and importance at home and abroad.

He is a down-to-earth and pragmatic worker known for his ability to solve problems efficiently. A problem-solver adept at not only identifying new problems, he solves them with practical solutions. During the press conference, he emphasized, “When we sit in the office, we only see problems, but when we go to the grassroots level, we only see solutions." His own political experience has already shown this. He wrote a book entitled Wenzhou Commentary: Wenzhou from the Perspective of a Wenzhou Native and the Secretary of the Wenzhou Municipal Party Committee. He affectionately tells the story of Wenzhou's development from a Wenzhou perspective. Even if one is unfamiliar with him, one can easily discern his governing style once you learn about his political career.