26 September 2015

Xi Jinping’s Inner Circle Offers Cold Shoulder to Western Officials

This concentration of power and decision-making, combined with severe new limitations in authoritative channels to communicate and consult back and forth with the outside world, is highly worrisome. It could be particularly problematic in the event of a foreign policy-related incident or crisis, in which both rapid decision-making and effective external consultation and communication might be essential to preventing escalation and resolving complex problems. Stock phrases and proverbs about “win-win” cooperation and building a positive bilateral relationship for mutual benefit—as permeated Xi’s U.S. visit this week—will have limited meaning so long as this opacity, insularity, and suspicion remain the bureaucratic order of the day.

Edward Wong, “Xi Jinping’s Inner Circle Offers Cold Shoulder to Western Officials,” New York Times, 25 September 2015.

… As President Xi Jinping made his first state visit to the United States, including a day of pageantry and diplomacy at the White House on Friday, Mr. Wang [Huning] was among a small group of advisers at his side.

A member of the Communist Party’s elite Politburo, Mr. Wang, 59, studied American society as a politics professor in Shanghai and an adviser to Mr. Xi’s two predecessors. In the process, he got to know American scholars and officials.

Yet, people who knew Mr. Wang back then say he has become unapproachable and ignores invitations for conversations. American officials find it difficult to talk to him casually on the sidelines of international forums.

They and other Western officials say that this icy remove is true not only of Mr. Wang, but also of other advisers with whom Mr. Xi travels, including Li Zhanshu, essentially Mr. Xi’s chief of staff, and Liu He, his top economic adviser.

The problem presents a huge challenge for the United States and other nations. By some standards, Mr. Xi’s administration is the most secretive in 66 years of Communist rule. …

“One of the problems we have in U.S.-China relations now is that we basically don’t know these people,” said David M. Lampton, director of China Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “I don’t think we have a very good understanding of who below Xi Jinping speaks for him.”

The refusal of Mr. Xi’s inner circle to develop ties with Western officials is consistent with a fundamental belief that has become widespread in the system here — namely that Western ideas and influences will undermine the Communist Party and lead to a “color revolution.” …

There is also broad agreement that Mr. Xi keeps colleagues and advisers — especially technocrats in state ministries — at more of a distance than other Chinese leaders did and that he relies mainly on his own knowledge and instincts in making decisions.

He is the head of seven of 22 “leading small groups,” opaque policy councils that weigh in on matters ranging from economics to cybersecurity. And he created the National Security Commission, another secretive group that aims to coordinate security policy to defend the party against internal and external threats.

Political insiders here say there are a handful of people whom Mr. Xi trusts. [These reportedly include the aforementioned advisers, as well as Wang Qishan and General Liu Yuan.]

“Liu Yuan plays a very important role here,” [Christopher K. Johnson, a former China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington] said. “He has strong views on the U.S., not particularly friendly ones. He is among Xi’s guys who promotes that whole ‘color revolution’ style of thinking.”

For related research, see:

Adam P. Liff and Andrew S. Erickson, “Japan-China Crisis Management–The Urgent Need for Air-Sea Contact Mechanism,” op-ed, Asahi Shimbun, 9 July 2015.

アダム・リフ、アンドリュー・エリクソン [Adam Liff and Andrew Erickson], “日中間の危機管理–海空連絡メカニズム急げ” [Japan-China Crisis Management—Expedite an Air-Sea Contact Mechanism],(私の視点)[Our Perspective (Op-Ed)], 朝日新聞 [Asahi Shimbun], 4 July 2015.