Sacking of Northeastern Legislators Strengthens Xi’s Position Ahead of Party Conclave

September 22, 2016 Updated: September 25, 2016

News Analysis

A recent vote-buying scandal in China’s national legislature and a provincial congress, which has led to the sacking or resignation of hundreds of representatives, appears to be closely connected with power dynamics at the top of the regime.

Of 102 National People’s Congress (NPC) delegates from Northeast China’s Liaoning Province, 45 were dismissed on charges that they had bought their way into the legislature in 2013. The move came following the sacking of several provincial leaders over the spring and summer.

It comes as an apparent jab at Zhang Dejiang, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s 7-man leadership group—the Politburo Standing Committee—and the head of the National People’s Congress, China’s state legislative body.

Since 2013, the central authorities of the Communist Party have investigated and punished thousands of officials for corruption and other abuses of power in a campaign that has simultaneously removed many Party rivals of current leader Xi Jinping.

As head of the NPC Standing Committee, Zhang Dejiang—a native of Liaoning Province and, as various factors indicate, no friend of Xi—is dangerous in light of the upcoming 6th Plenum of the Party’s current round of leadership. At the plenary session will be decided the lineup of officials to enter vacant offices starting with next year’s 19th National Congress of the Communist Party.

Speaking to Radio France Internationale, professor Chen Daoyin of the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law said that Xi Jinping intends the Liaoning scandal to be a platform to advance his preferred list of personnel for the upcoming 19th Party Congress.

“Xi will not allow anything to go wrong during this process,” Chen said. “He wants absolute control.”

Zhang Dejiang in Check

The developments in Liaoning are unprecedented. Never in the history of the People’s Republic of China have People’s Congress delegates been sacked for vote-buying or selling at such high levels or in such numbers.

While Xi is the general secretary of the Communist Party, he must share power with the rest of the Politburo Standing Committee, not all of whom are loyal. Advancing his goals often means employing nuanced, indirect means.

After Xi came to power, municipal People’s Congresses in the provinces of Hunan and Sichuan had been implicated for electoral fraud, and were heavily criticized in state media as a challenge to the Communist Party system.

In theory, the NPC is the state lawmaking agency, but in practice it only serves to validate decisions by the Communist Party. For example, of over 2,000 delegates, all but three voted for Xi Jinping’s ascendancy from previous leader Hu Jintao, as the decision had already been decided before the 18th Party Congress that was held in 2012. 

Zhang Dejiang’s hold on the national legislature could endanger or negative influence Xi’s preferred lineup in the 19th Party Congress.

By allowing the anti-corruption campaign to expand to provincial and national lawmakers, Xi’s administration lays the foundations for a potential case against Zhang.

This is particularly poignant in light of the Communist Party’s so-called “Accountability Ordinances” that were promulgated this summer and hold the heads of Party organizations responsible for the misdeeds of their subordinates.

In the Liaoning scandal, provincial People’s Congress standing committee vice-chair Li Feng was ensnared by the ordinances and removed from his posts on Sept. 17, according to the state-run People’s Daily web edition.

Tandem Developments

Zhang rose to prominence in the 2000s, and, according to retired Chinese military propagandist Xin Ziling, is affiliated with former Party leader Jiang Zemin, as are fellow Politburo Standing Committee members Liu Yunshan and Zhang Gaoli (no relation of Zhang Dejiang).

The 90-year-old Jiang, for his part, has not held public office for over a decade, but numerous officials who made their careers under him continued to support his policies and benefit from his patronage. This unofficial faction has come under heavy blows from Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.

Those disciplined include dozens of provincial-level leaders and a handful of national-level officials, many of whom have connections to Jiang Zemin. Not even Politburo members are exempt: Zhou Yongkang, a Standing Committee member who headed an extralegal Party group set up by Jiang in 1999 to persecute Falun Gong, then had his powers extended to cover the entire Chinese police and legal apparatus, was put under investigation in 2014. He was sentenced to life in prison the following year.

The blows to the People’s Congress and by association Zhang Dejiang are not the only recent events that have broken usual Party convention.

On July 26, Xi chaired a Politburo meeting in which the agenda for the 6th Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party was decided months earlier than has been normal procedure. According to the Party-controlled news agency Xinhua, the agenda will focus on the “major issue of strictly governing the Party,” and the updating of two existing Party regulations on cadre discipline

The plenum is expected to be held in October, and its agenda is typically unveiled ten days in advance.

Frank Fang contributed to this article.