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Xi Jinping’s “Ears, Mouth, and Brain”: The New Propaganda Team in Action

Oct 23, 2022
  • Cheng Li

    Director, John L. Thornton China Center, The Brookings Institution

Like powerful state leaders everywhere, President Xi Jinping has consolidated his power with the support of an inner circle of friends and protégés — individuals who serve as his hands, ears, mouth, and brain. The scholar-officials working at the think tanks within the Party-state apparatus have increasingly played the key role in China’s strategic thinking, ideological discourse, and propaganda work during the Xi era, as has been discussed in the previous article in this series. At the ongoing 20th Party Congress, they are the drafters of the amendments to the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and major speeches by the top leaders as well as other important documents.

Because of their proximity to the top leadership and their significant influence on the formation of ideology and policy, these scholar-officials who have advanced from official think tanks do not necessarily limit themselves to serving as advisors, and some have become policymakers and high-ranking leaders. Their ascendence to the pinnacle of power is most clear in the remarkable cases of Wang Huning (a Politburo Standing Committee member) and Liu He (a Politburo member and vice premier).

A new term, “upper echelon strategists” (dingceng shejishi), was recently coined in some quarters of the Chinese political establishment to refer to this important cohort. The main features of this new elite group –– both its collective traits and idiosyncrasies, including personal backgrounds, professional experiences, patron-client ties, philosophical outlooks, and policy preferences –– are among the most revealing sources of information for China watchers.      

China’s “upper echelon strategists”

Parallel to the creation of this new route to power, the Chinese authorities have also recently developed the new concept of “upper echelon strategic design” or “top-level strategic design” (dingceng sheji) to call for better coordination in planning economic, sociopolitical, cultural, ideological, and ecological developments in the country. The concept originates from the idea of “top-down design” –– a Western theory of systemics, in which design should begin with identifying the big picture or specifying the big complex objective and then dividing it into successively smaller and more integrated pieces. The term “upper echelon strategic design” first appeared in the 12th Five-Year Plan published in March 2011. It is believed that Liu He, who worked in the field of systems theory early in his career, is “the inventor of the term.”

The same approach, according to the Chinese authorities, can and should be applied to the decision-making process of the leadership, especially in the wake of the growing challenges emanating from China’s socioeconomic development at home and the global geopolitical transformation and financial fluctuations abroad. According to the CCP leadership, China’s economic reforms have now entered “deep water” and face tougher barriers and more complicated challenges. Deng Xiaoping’s approach, which was known as “crossing the river by feeling the stones,” would be neither effective nor appropriate today. 

Advocating for Xi’s core status and the greatness of “Xi Jinping thought”

Some upper echelon designers have long engaged in advocating for Xi’s core status in the CCP leadership and the importance of “Xi Jinping thought” as a guiding principle in the new and rapidly changing domestic and international environment. As Bill Bishop, a well-known China watcher, noted on the eve of the 20th Party Congress, the Central Propaganda Department launched a series of new programs on TV and other media on “Navigating China” (linghang Zhongguo), praising the progress and policy successes under Xi’s leadership since the 18th Party Congress.

Understandably, officials in the CCP propaganda apparatus have been on the frontlines in elevating the core status of Xi and the greatness of “Xi Jinping thought.” Fu Hua (1964), newly appointed president of Xinhua News Agency, issued the following effusive statement in September 2022, which received much attention from the Chinese public: “Xinhua [News Agency] will never depart from the Party line, not even for a minute; nor stray from the path laid down by General Secretary Xi Jinping, not even for a minute; nor lose sight of General Secretary Xi Jinping and the CCP Central Committee, not even for a minute.”

 More specifically, the drafting group for the 20th Party Congress aims to more forcefully articulate Xi’s beliefs and strategic plan for the new era of China’s modernization to people both at home and abroad. This propaganda team is apparently placing greater emphasis on national security and the “fighting spirit” (douzheng) of the CCP leadership amid “the dangerous storms,” terms Xi used in his work report at the 20th Party Congress. These terms also reflect the concerted effort to reduce inequality by promoting common prosperity. Some foreign analysts assert that the new propaganda team formed at the 20th Party Congress, including these new “upper echelon strategists,” could take an even harder and more conservative line in its approaches to domestic and foreign policy. 

Prominent designers of strategy, ideology, and policy-planning under Xi 

Table 1 presents, on the eve of the 20th Party Congress, 22 prominent leaders with official think tank experience. More than two-thirds of them currently serve on the 19th Central Committee (CC) or the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), including one member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), eight full members of the CC, two members of the CCDI, and three alternate members of the CC.

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These leaders all have substantial work experience in some of the most influential think tanks in the Chinese Party-state, such as the CCP Policy Research Office (four leaders), the Central Party School (three), State Council Research Office (two), and the State Council Development Research Center (two). Eighteen (82 percent) out of the 22 officials on the list have spent more than 10 years of their career in the domain of think tanks. Two leaders, Jiang Jinquan (1959) and Xie Chuntao (1963), have worked in think tanks for more than 30 years, and, in fact, they continue to work in this area at present. Eight other leaders have worked in this area for over 20 years.

Many of these officials with substantial work experience in think tanks have never served in the provincial and municipal leadership, which is the main stepping stone to the top leadership. Some were only recently transferred to provincial level leadership, including Jilin Governor Han Jun (1963), Hainan Governor Feng Fei (1962), and Yunan Deputy Party Secretary Shi Yugang (1965). They all previously worked for over 20 years in governmental think tanks.

The Chinese public and outside world will soon find out whether Wang Huning (1955) and Liu He (1952) will stay on or even advance in the PSC (in the case of Liu) or whether they will retire from the Party leadership. Four leaders –– Executive Deputy Director of the Central Propaganda Department Li Shulei (1964), Secretary of the Central Military Commission for Discipline Inspection Zhang Shengmin (1958), Fujian Party Secretary Yin Li (1962), and Shaanxi Party Secretary Liu Guozhong (1962) –– are among the leading candidates for the 20th Politburo. Director of the CCP Policy Research Office Jiang Jinquan will likely obtain a seat concurrently on both the new Politburo and Secretariat or just in the Secretariat. Most of the other leaders on this list will likely serve as full members or alternate members of the 20th CC. 

Li Shulei and Jiang Jinquan: Two influential upper echelon strategists to watch

It is widely believed that Li Shulei and Jiang Jinquan will play leading roles in propaganda and policy planning work during Xi’s third term. Li was recently promoted to be executive deputy director of the Central Propaganda Department. Li served as Xi’s deputy at the Central Party School from 2007 to 2012, and he has been a primary speechwriter for Xi. Jiang succeeded Wang Huning as director of the CCP Policy Research Office in October 2020. Like his predecessor, Jiang has also developed some key concepts for Xi Jinping, especially the amendment to the CCP Constitution and the new ideological narrative at the 20th Party Congress. These two leaders’ career paths, policy orientations, and relationships with Xi deserve greater attention. 

Li Shulei was born into a family of very humble means in January 1964 in Yuanyang County, Henan Province, where his parents were farmers in a poor and remote village. He joined the CCP in September 1986. Li received a bachelor’s degree in library science in 1982 at the age of 18, a master’s degree in modern Chinese literature in 1984, and a doctoral degree in modern Chinese literature in 1988 when he was 24 years old, all from Peking University. Given his educational accomplishments at such a young age, Li was given the nickname “Peking University child prodigy” (Beida shentong) at Peking University and in the academic circles of Beijing.

After attaining his master’s degree, Li joined the CPS, where he later worked for over two decades (1984-2014). At the CPS, he advanced his career in the Department of Literature and History as an instructor (1989-93), a sub-departmental director (1993-96), department deputy director (1996-99), and department director (1999-2002). In 1995, Li obtained the title of full professor at the CPS. Between 1993 and 2003, Li wrote nine books, the topics of which included ancient classics and modern Chinese cultural changes, rural education and urban transformation, and philosophy and religion.

In 2008, Li was appointed as provost (2008-09) and vice president (2008-14) of the CPS when Xi Jinping was president of the school from 2007-2012. It was reported in the Chinese media that during his tenure as vice president of the CPS, Li never accepted a request for a media interview. During Li’s time at the CPS, Li also served in two temporary positions as deputy Party secretary of Qinglong Manchu Autonomous County in Hebei (1992-93) and as deputy Party secretary of Xi’an (2004-2006).

These appointments were often seen by many observers of Chinese elite politics as part of a plan to broaden Li’s administrative experience and prepare him for a more prominent role in the national leadership. For the same reason, in 2014, Li was transferred to Fujian, the province where Xi spent many years early in his career, and was named a member of the provincial Party Standing Committee as well as the head of the provincial Party propaganda department (2014-15). According to some Chinese sources, during his tenure in Fujian, Li directed Fujian Daily to publish a prominent series of articles for three consecutive days focusing on Xi’s working experience in Fujian. What was remarkable is that these articles were written in short sentences and in a simple yet vivid manner. Observers saw this as an experiment to recreate the official narrative and reach the public.

In December 2015, Li was transferred to Beijing, where he served as secretary of the CCP Commission for Discipline Inspection and a member of the capital city’s municipal Party Standing Committee (2015-16). Li was promoted further to become deputy secretary of the CCDI (2017-20) and deputy director of the National Supervisory Commission (2018-20). Through these appointments, Li also gained leadership experience in this critically important area in addition to overseeing anti-corruption work on behalf of his boss Xi.

Li returned to the CPS in December 2020 to serve as executive vice president with the rank of minister, at which time the CPS merged with the Chinese Academy of Governance (2020-22). In 2022, Li was appointed as executive deputy director of the Central Propaganda Department of the CCP and director of the General Office of the CCP Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization (2022-present). This most recent appointment signals that it is likely that Li will assume the role of Xi’s most trusted Party theoretician.

On a few occasions, Li Shulei claimed that among the ancient Chinese poets and scholars, he most admires Bai Juyi, the renowned Chinese poet and Tang dynasty government official. As he has described, Bai is a great humanitarian who views life with a Buddhist indifference and avoids the kind of hierarchical prejudice that is common. Bai Juyi’s poems, for example, the “Song of Everlasting Sorrow,” not only explore the suffering of the lower classes, but also give the emperor a “human face,” sympathizing with the pain and helplessness in the heart of an emperor. By making this statement, Li obviously was not only referencing historical figures.

In comparison, Jiang Jinquan’s personal ties with Xi are not as close as Li Shulei. Jiang did not get a chance to serve as a provincial and municipal level leader earlier in his career. Instead, he has worked for almost his entire career (37 years) in think tanks. Jiang was born in September 1959 in Xishui County, Hubei Province, and received his bachelor’s degree in Chinese from Hubei Normal University in 1981 and his doctoral degree in economics from Huazhong University of Science and Technology. As a Ph.D. student in economics, Jiang studied under Zhang Peigang, a well-known economist considered to be the founder of development economics in China.

Upon graduation from Hubei Normal University, Jiang worked briefly as the deputy director of the Organization Division of the Organization Department of the Hubei Party Committee before he was transferred to the Party Building Bureau of the Central Policy Research Office, where he advanced early in his career. In 2013, Jiang was named Vice Director of the Central Policy Research Office and the Head of the Mishu Group of the Leading Group on Party-Building (2013-2016). In 2017, he participated in the drafting process for the official report of the 19th Party Congress. Jiang returned to serving as the vice director of the Central Policy Research Office in 2018 and became the director of the Central Policy Research Office in 2020.

As early as 2007, Jiang wrote a book entitled “Research on ‘China Model’: Analysis of China’s Economic Development Path.” The emphasis on China’s unique path of modernization is one of the main themes of Xi Jinping’s work report at the 20th Party Congress. Over the past few years, Jiang was instrumental in promoting some important aspects of “Xi Jinping thought.” In 2021, Jiang initiated the new concept “two establishments” (liangge queli). He advocated that the Party has established Comrade Xi Jinping as the core of the Central Committee of the CCP and the core of the entire Party; and the Party has also established the guiding position of “Xi Jinping Thought” on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era. In Jiang’s words, these “two establishments” are essential both for China as a nation and the CCP as the ruling Party.

Jiang is often seen as a key theoretician to provide an historical and philosophical foundation for Xi’s bold and drastic anti-corruption campaign and Xi’s call for the strict governance of the Party. In Jiang’s words, strictly administering the Party (congyan zhidang) is an important practice of the century-old party’s self-revolution (ziwo geming) in the new era. Jiang claimed that the great self-revolution has enabled the Party to successfully escape the historical vicious cycle of decline. In line with this thinking, Jiang implied that with the sweeping anti-corruption campaign and other strict Party governance measures, Xi Jinping saved the CCP, especially considering the legitimacy crisis in 2012.

More recently, Jiang has also bluntly criticized Western democracy. In Jiang’s view, the electoral democracy of which some Western countries are proud involves elections dominated by capital are “democracy for the rich.” The White House’s Democracy Summit is an attempt to revive Western democracy. For Jiang, it is a great irony to hold this summit against the background of the many problems evident in Western democracies. He sees the purpose as nothing more than suppressing some countries, especially China.

As both Li and Jiang are moving to the center stage in propaganda and ideological work during Xi’s third term, one can reasonably expect that “upper echelon strategists” like them will gain more influence in the years to come.

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