Who’s the Second Most Powerful Person in China?
Trying to identify the second most powerful person in China is a difficult task. Xi Jinping, the man who’s indisputably the most powerful person in China, towers like a colossus, and the shadow he casts is long and black, obscuring everything, and everyone, beneath it.
Added to that is the opacity of the Chinese political system, such that it’s unknown how China’s top decision-making bodies, the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee, come to their decisions, nor even how people are selected to join these bodies. Several China experts we spoke to for this story compared trying to identify the second most powerful person with attempting to peer into a black box.
But we at Rabbit Hole don’t shrink from an honest challenge. Read about how we came to our decision, and who we picked, below.
We define power as the ability to do what you want, and the ability to get other people to do what you want, either through influence, or the use of carrots (enticement, rewards) or sticks (threats, punishment).
When trying to identify the second most powerful person in China, we kept in mind the following things about China and the nature of power.
In China, political power trumps all
Power comes in many forms. In China, though, everything is ultimately subordinate to political power. Some might suggest a tycoon like Ren Zhengfei, founder and CEO of Huawei, or Pony Ma, founder, chairman, and CEO of Tencent, as China’s second most powerful person on account of their economic clout, but this is highly unlikely. As recently as 2016, Wang Jianlin, the owner of Wanda, was China’s richest person, but, after Wanda fell afoul of Chinese authorities (there are also rumors that Wang himself has fallen from political favor), big banks were suddenly instructed to cut off funds to the company. This crippled Wanda, forcing it to sell many of its assets, and relegated Wang to the rank of China’s 14th richest person. Likewise, any tycoon who falls out with the Party could easily find himself at its mercy. This is a common feature of authoritarian countries: in Russia, conflicts between President Vladimir Putin and the oligarchs (Russia’s richest men) end with Putin jailing them and seizing their assets. When political power and economic power clash, political power wins.
Official positions don’t determine power
This isn’t only true in China, of course. To see this, consider the question: “Who’s the second most powerful person in the US?” Some might suggest Vice President Mike Pence, or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, or Attorney General William Barr, by virtue of the offices they hold. But, of course, President Donald Trump has absolute power to fire them (or, in Pence’s case, to pick a new running mate) if they ever displease him, has demonstrated his willingness to use this power by firing many of their predecessors and colleagues already, and none of them seem willing to stand up to him on anything. Likewise, the Senate Majority Leader is usually a very powerful person, but Mitch McConnell seems terrified of checking or opposing the president because he fears Republican voters, who are in Trump’s thrall, will vote him out in the next election if he does. Most other Congressional Republicans seem similarly spineless for the same reason. Someone who wields power just by being someone’s right-hand man, but is really just an agent or a puppet of that person, probably doesn’t have much power. Therefore, more likely candidates for the second most powerful person in America would be those who hold power independently of Trump, like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi or Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, or maybe even someone Trump can’t fire as easily because he’s related to them, like Ivanka or Jared Kushner.
In China, this is even more pronounced. Deng Xiaoping, for example, remained the most powerful person in China long after stepping down as president and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), even though his only remaining official position was chairman of the China Bridge Association.
No one comes close to Xi
Xi Jinping’s power in China is near-absolute. He has designated himself “core leader,” had “Xi Jinping Thought” enshrined in the Chinese constitution, scrapped term limits, and declined to anoint a successor.
He has purged powerful rivals like Zhou Yongkang, the former security chief. He has persecuted even relatively powerless critics or perceived opponents who pose little threat to him. He guards his preeminent position in the national consciousness with the jealousy of an Abrahamic god, going so far as to publicly humiliate his own deputy, Li Keqiang, after a disagreement, to show everyone who’s in charge. What this means is that if anyone were to become powerful enough to pose a potential threat to him, that person would probably be quickly purged or neutered, and so wouldn’t remain in that position for long. “[A]s under Mao,” said Peter Lorentzen, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of San Francisco, and an expert on Chinese governance, “anyone clearly identified as the Number Two would find that position to be dangerously temporary.”
Thus, no one even comes close to Xi in terms of power. Of course, no one is omnipotent, but whoever the second most powerful person in China is, he or she is a very distant second.
Ultimately, we found we couldn’t agree on who the second most powerful person in China is, so we offer two different answers.
Li Keqiang, Premier of the People’s Republic of China
I know, I know, all that stuff about official positions not determining power, and I go and pick the ostensible Number Two in China’s political hierarchy.
Li Keqiang often gets quite short shrift. “He’s regarded as being a sort of low-profile, not particularly interlinked or interconnected premier,” Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Institute and Professor of Chinese Studies at King’s College London, told CNN. “He’s got probably the worst job in China. The premier is always going to be taking the rap for stuff.” Indeed, the fact that Li was chosen to initially lead China’s coronavirus response before the spread reversed, whereupon Xi swooped in to take credit, seemed to confirm this idea. Some speculated that Li was chosen because he was expendable, and so could be made a scapegoat if things ended up getting worse, that way Xi wouldn’t have to risk his health or his reputation (though Li’s experience in dealing with health crises may also have had something to do with it). Li seems to be in the unenviable position of having a lot of responsibilities, without the corresponding amount of power.
Then, there’s the slights that Xi has forced Li to swallow. In May 2016, Xi reportedly instigated his economic advisers to write an article (which was published in the People’s Daily, which, like most media in China, is state-controlled) criticizing Li’s economic policies. (Li later responded with a subtle riposte in an account in state media.) The following month, the two leaders ended up making statements on economic policy that directly conflicted with one another. Shortly after, Xi held a meeting with over two dozen top economists and analysts to which Li was not invited. Something similar played out this year. In May, Li attempted to promote a “street vendor economy” as a solution to the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus, despite Xi’s distaste for street vendors, who he seems to regard as dodgy. Li’s comments began trending on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent. Shortly after, likely at Xi’s behest, Weibo then censored discussion of street vendor economics, and Chinese state media ran commentaries criticizing Li’s idea. Once again, the following month, Xi convened a business council to which Li, a member of the council and nominally responsible for the economy, was not invited. A ceremony on 31st July added further insult, as an article in National Review recounted:
As he was introduced, Xi’s multiple titles were read one after the other, and he stood for recognition to hearty applause. Immediately following, Li’s name was quickly read and as participants began to applaud – except Xi who sat staring straight ahead – Li began to stand in recognition. Before he could do so, the next name was read. Li made an awkward half-stand to tepid, interrupted applause and sat back down quickly. It was a clear and intended snub.
So why Li? First, unlike many other high-ranking Chinese officials, who have come to their positions only through Xi’s favor and serve at his pleasure, Li has a power base independent from Xi. He rose to power through his membership in the Communist Youth League faction, and through the favor of Hu Jintao, China’s president before Xi, and one of the faction’s most prominent members. True, Xi, in his usual fashion, has in recent years curtailed the power of this faction, and it’s likely nowhere near as influential as it used to be. But it remains an independent power base nonetheless. Furthermore, so far as we can tell, Li’s premiership and Xi’s presidency were both the result of a collective decision by the members of the 17th Politburo Standing Committee (the cabal of nine men who ostensibly ruled China at the relevant time), and so Li derives his position not from Xi’s will but from the same shadowy negotiations and compromises that enthroned Xi himself.
Could Xi purge Li if he wanted? Most likely yes: in China today, it’s unlikely anyone is safe from Xi. But it would also probably be messy and complicated. It would probably upset other members of the Communist Youth League faction, including former president Hu Jintao, maybe even divide the country. Thus, Li is probably one of the few people in China who Xi might be wary of purging.
Li is also the only top Chinese official who doesn’t always act like Xi’s agent, like an extension of his will. Sure, his public disagreements with Xi end with the president insulting him, but at least he has enough nerve and agency to publicly disagree with Xi at all, unlike the other sycophants in the Chinese system. Indeed, the fact that Xi deliberately inflicts these petty insults on him, that he goes so far as to orchestrate these passive-aggressive campaigns to slight him, is telling, for why insult someone who is your puppet, who does whatever you say? Why engage in these churlish little demonstrations of your power designed to put him in his place when he’s already completely subordinate? These antics suggest that Xi resents and, to some extent, fears Li for his relative independence and popularity with the common people (in China, Li does seem to be perceived as more a man of the people than the lofty Xi). As premier, Li is also in a unique position to command the national stage, which is probably another reason Xi views him as a potential rival for his people’s affections.
It’s a mark of how much Xi has consolidated power and concentrated it in himself that Li, a man who is often derided and insulted and treated as expendable, is the closest thing to real power outside him. China’s second most powerful person is hiding in plain sight.
Wang Huning, First Secretary of the Central Secretariat of the Chinese Communist Party (background, middle)
Of course, the issue with having real power outside of Xi Jinping is that the power is, well, outside. In authoritarian regimes like China, where power is concentrated in the hands of one man, his right-hand man also wields great power. And the right-hand man Xi relies on the most now (now that his chief rivals have been purged) is Wang Huning, who specializes in soft persuasion rather than harsh persecution. In a political hierarchy built on an ideology of unconditional loyalty to the Party, the architect of that ideology is naturally very powerful.
Wang Huning is the only current member of the Politburo who has served in more or less the same capacity under all three leaders after Deng Xiaoping. Unlike his colleagues on the Politburo Standing Committee, Wang Huning did not rise to his position through the Party’s political hierarchy, but as something of a superstar academic at Fudan University. There, he was noticed by former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, who put him in charge of an important working group at the Central Policy Research Office, where the CCP’s core ideology is formed. This office is the source of the CCP’s political slogans and propaganda campaigns including such hits as the Belt and Road, the Chinese Dream, and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, and under Xi Jinping, they have become more pervasive and ubiquitous.
Because of his influence, Wang has been called the Chinese Henry Kissinger, Karl Rove, or even Steve Bannon, but it may be more apt to compare him to the legendary strategist Zhuge Liang, who advised political leaders on military affairs during the Three Kingdoms period. While Wang Huning, unlike Zhuge Liang, does not have any particular military expertise, one of his most important functions is as a national security advisor. The exact personal relationship between Wang Huning and Xi Jinping is not clear, but according to Jonghyuk Lee, Assistant Professor in the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, he may not just have the ability to articulate Xi’s thoughts, but also the ability to shape them.
“People call him the brain behind three supreme leaders,” Yun Sun, a China expert at the Washington-based Stimson Center told the New York Times. This sentiment is echoed by Allen Carlson, Director of the China and Asia Pacific Studies Program at Cornell University: “While he is seldom in the spotlight, his words and ideas often are.” Indeed, Wang Huning’s obscurity is a key aspect of his power. A 2018 paper by Haig Patapan and Wang Yi of Griffith University in the Journal of Contemporary China called him “a hidden leader,” saying:
[Wang Huning] seems to have become an insider whose role and actions in some sense can be understood both in terms of the Confucian literati and Marxist intelligentsia. But in important respects, Wang seems to have gone beyond these roles. More accurately, he is in the tradition of…western scholarship the advisor who governs indirectly. He has, in other words, become a hidden leader. It should be clear that the article is not claiming that Wang has assumed political authority, which clearly is held within the larger architecture of the General Secretary, the Standing Committee of the Politburo, and the offices within the hierarchy of the Party and the state. Rather, the suggestion is that his counsel has been so significant that though not wielding direct political authority, he has as an advisor come to shape significantly the future political direction of modern China.
The distinction here between political influence and political authority is important because it does not just explain why Wang Huning is powerful, but also why he is more powerful than others. During our interviews with various experts many other names cropped up: Zhao Leji, secretary of the Central Commission of Discipline and Inspection, Xu Qiliang, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, and Chen Quanguo, the notorious party boss of Xinjiang. However, the power of these people is, to some extent, proportional to the size of their domain, and the domains of the Chinese party-state are largely siloed off from each other; the head of one ministry or party office has very little ability to influence the work of another. The CCP’s measure to bridge the competing interests of its bureaucracy is the creation of thousands of issue-specific Leading Small Groups, where one high-ranking official (often Xi himself), has the authority to direct several groups at once, but even these officials must frame their work in a politically correct manner. And in China, Wang Huning decides what is politically correct. He is the ultimate “engineer of the soul,” as Joseph Stalin described his propagandists.
Wang Huning may lack a support base, or the ability to directly control any given part of the sprawling CCP bureaucracy, yet the indirect manner in which he exercises his power is evident all throughout it. Party cadres down to the lowest village level must study Xi Jinping Thought through tracking apps that test them on their knowledge of Xi’s speeches and political theories. And all this propaganda is directed by Wang Huning.
The fact that Wang’s career spans two decades and three leaders from different competing factions only underscores how indispensable he has made himself to the CCP’s ideological work. In a volatile and cutthroat political environment, Wang Huning is the constant.