In a lengthy piece of analysis published by the Jamestown Foundation's China Brief last week, Willy Lam offers up many keen insights into the formation and composition of Chinese President Xi Jinping's inner circle.

The piece deserves more attention from policymakers and China watchers than it has so far received. The power dynamics within Xi's ruling clique have broad implications for the direction of domestic economic reform and the formulation of foreign and national security policies.

Lam starts off by noting that Xi has emerged as the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping. In late January Xi became Chairman of the party's National Security Commission, which controls the police, intelligence and judicial apparatuses. A month earlier, he was named Chairman of the Leading Group on the Comprehensive Deepening of Reform (LGCDR), a powerful new body many expected to be headed by Premier Li Keqiang. Xi's usurping of the role indicates the President has taken over the economic reins, which in previous administrations had been held by the country's No. 2.

More significant than these power grabs, Lam writes, has been Xi's building of a clique whose members occupy senior positions in the party, government and military.

In contrast to ex-presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, who respectively headed the party's Shanghai and Communist Youth League factions, Lam says Xi lacked a natural power base from which to draw support. As a princeling himself, Xi would seem the natural head of the 'red aristocracy.' But Lam reminds us that the group has disparate interests, ideologies and ambitions, and is not beholden to the patronage of a single leader. As a result, Xi has had to build a broader power base than both Hu and Jiang. His success has been in bringing  (some would say smashing) various factions into his fold.

Lam goes on to detail the diverse talent pool within Xi's clique. Mentioned are:

  • Military princelings: While there are few 'high born cadres' among the current generation of political leadership, a number of prominent military leaders are princelings. To bring them on side, Xi has paid more attention to military affairs than his two predecessors, toured all major PLA divisions, and seems to be affording the generals a stronger say in foreign and national security policies.  
  • Former associates from Fujian and Zhejiang provinces: Xi served in Fujian and Zhejiang from 1985 to 2007. Several former underlings, including Chen Min'er and Huang Kunming, have risen to powerful positions in the leadership.
  • Converts from the Shanghai faction: Xi's promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007 was thanks to the patronage of Shanghai faction heavyweights. Xi has been keen to reward this support and co-opt Shanghai-affiliated cadres. One who has switched to Xi's camp is Ding Xuexiang, now deputy director of the General Office of the party's Central Committee. 
  • Senior cadres from Shaanxi Province: Xi was born in Shaanxi, as was his father, Xi Zhongxun, a revered figure in communist party history. Lam writes that politburo members from the 'Shaanxi Gang' have bonded with Xi as they have taken care of Xi's family's interests in the province.

As Xi has built this support base, he has taken steps to sideline the Communist Youth League faction, Lam says. Premier Li is the sole politburo standing committee member that has links with the League. The snubbing of Li for the chairmanship of the LGCDR sent a clear signal, as did his being left out of the team that drafted the reform package at last year's Third Plenum. Ordinary politburo members with ties to the League have been given light assignments.

Xi's directive that party organs take the lead in reform seemingly runs counter to Li's emphasis on stemming bureaucratic interference in the economy. The differences between the two leaders on economic policy are palpable but it's now clear whose opinion matters.  

Lam concludes by raising concerns about the competency of Xi's hastily assembled clique. He writes of a number of appointments that suggest Xi has rewarded loyalty over ability. That's nothing new for elite Chinese politics, but Lam suggests the extent of the power Xi has amassed means incompetence could increase the damage of potential missteps.

Lam's analysis represents a fairly comprehensive attempt to peer behind the curtain of Xi's newly amassed power. There are some issues in his analysis: for instance, some of the appointments he offers as evidence of Xi's clique building were made before Xi took power, and the sidelining of the youth league didn't start with Xi. But by and large, Lam offers a fresh and convincing model in which to place Xi, especially after previous attempts at explaining his rise based on the Shanghai clique broke down.

For a more comprehensive look at Xi's consolidation of power, we'll probably have to wait for the release of a new book by John Garnaut on China's princelings. If Garnaut's January talk at Oxford University is anything to go by, he could present a rather different take on Xi's clique than the one offered by Lam.

Photo by Flickr user Bert van Dijk.