Xi Jinping finally has something that eluded him for almost a decade: a trusted confidante at the top of China’s police ministry.
Wang Xiaohong’s appointment as public security minister in June marked another breakthrough for Xi in his relentless consolidation of power since being appointed head of the Chinese Communist party and its Central Military Commission in 2012.
Over the past week, China’s president has wielded his authority from the latter to historic effect, by launching unprecedented military exercises that have irrevocably altered the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.
He is expected to retain both those posts for an unprecedented third term in power at a party congress this year, followed by his reappointment as state president at next year’s annual session of China’s parliament.
Xi and Wang have known each other since at least the mid-1990s, when Xi was rising through the ranks in southeastern Fujian province and Wang was a senior policeman in the provincial capital, Fuzhou.
Wang’s two predecessors at the public security ministry, Zhao Kezhi and Guo Shengkun, were not considered to be particularly close to Xi.
“Guo and Zhao were already high-ranking party leaders when Xi became general secretary, and their career paths had never crossed with Xi’s in the past,” said Li Ling, a Chinese politics and law expert at the University of Vienna.
Xi’s grip on two of the party’s three power centres — the military “gun” and propaganda “pen” — has been firm for many years.
As China’s most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong, Xi oversaw a sweeping overhaul of the People’s Liberation Army during his first term. The party’s most important propaganda organs routinely offer fawning coverage of Xi’s activities, such as his recent triumphal tours of Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
But the third traditional pillar of Chinese party power, the internal security apparatus, or “knife”, has been a relative “hold out”, said Peter Mattis, an expert on China’s security apparatus at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington.
In the year before Wang’s appointment as China’s top cop, at least three current or former public security vice-ministers were purged for corruption. Two of them, Fu Zhenghua and Sun Lijun, were accused of “colluding” with each other, criticising “the party’s major policies” and having “hugely inflated political ambitions”.
“This is why [Xi’s] rectification campaign against the political-legal apparatus is so important,” said Mattis. “The progression through these areas is how Mao seized power.”
Willy Lam, a party politics expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Fu and Sun were effectively accused of “trying to form an anti-party cabal, which means an anti-Xi Jinping faction”.
“Wang Xiaohong on the other hand is a trusted confidante. He and Xi go back a long time,” Lam added. “Xi achieved what he wanted, which was to put a key protégé in charge of the police establishment.”
Xi has also worked diligently to install allies at the party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which oversees China’s police, state security and courts apparatus, and in another measure of its importance it enjoys an official budget bigger than the military’s.
Though still headed by Guo, 67, Xi protégé Chen Yixin has been the CPLC’s general secretary and de facto head of its operations since 2018.
Chen worked closely with Xi 20 years ago in Zhejiang province, where the future president served as governor and party secretary. Xi brought Chen to Beijing in 2015 and dispatched him to Hubei province, centre of the global coronavirus pandemic, to help stabilise the outbreak there in February 2020.
In a recent speech to internal security officials, Chen said: “Our party, country and people are so lucky to have Xi Jinping as the core of the party, as the people’s leader and as commander-in-chief.
“He has the aura of leadership, outstanding intelligence, personal charisma and the people are in his heart,” he added. “The more complicated the situation and the more arduous the task, the more we need Xi Jinping as our helmsman.”
Li said Chen was a leading candidate to succeed Guo as head of the CPLC at this year’s party congress.
“Chen Yixin has been running [internal security matters] day-to-day for a while and there has been no indication that [Xi’s] control over the legal system and institutions has been stymied,” Li said.
“But it would be even better [for Xi] if the new CPLC head is a fully trusted follower from [his] own camp.”
The power of the CPLC was vividly demonstrated by Zhou Yongkang, who ran its fiefdoms with impunity under Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor.
Zhou, who supported a Xi rival in the party’s internal selection process for a new leader in 2012, was sentenced to life in prison for alleged corruption in 2015. He remains the most powerful victim of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign to date.
“Zhou Yongkang had the ability to seriously threaten other party and state leaders with his control over the security resources,” said Samantha Hoffman, a Sinologist at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “The CPLC apparatus is fundamental to stability.”
Additional reporting by Andy Lin in Hong Kong