The Importance of Leading Small Groups and Formulation of Foreign Policy in China

By – Albin Thomas;

The foreign policy formulation in China is entirely different, particularly from western and democratic countries. Numerous actors and decision-makers are involved in this process, and most of the time, the role of the foreign affairs minister is negligible and minuscule compared to other countries. Leading Small Groups (LSGs) are unique to Chinese foreign policymaking and have a significant role. The LSGs function as a mechanism to incorporate different government and party functionaries to implement their interests and opinions to government machinery. The LSG’s primary function is ministerial coordination and make consensus among government, party and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) systems. The formulation and its work come from Chapter IX of the Constitution of the Communist Party of China. The current regime under Xi Jinping made some critical changes regarding foreign policy formulation and implementation. He created the Central Foreign Affairs Commission in 2018 to formulate the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs comes under the purview of the newly established Central Foreign Affairs Commission for formulating and implementing foreign policy. The Central Foreign Affairs Commission is currently chaired by Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) General Secretary and President Xi Jinping, and Premier Li Keqiang as its deputy leader. This structural change under Xi Jinping will strengthen the role of the CCP in China’s foreign policymaking, sidelining the government agencies in charge of foreign policy, and concentrating more power in his hands.

Leading Small Groups and their Significance in Chinese Internal Politics

 Leading Small Groups (LSGs) helps in the policy formulation and coordination among the party, government and military. They are subordinate to the party secretariat and report to the politburo and standing committee. Most of the information regarding the small leading groups is not available to the public domain largely. It was only one time the PRC media listed the current members of any of these LSGs. In 2003, the PRC controlled Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po published a complete members list of the Central Committee Taiwan Work Leading Small Group. It was first created in 1958, and it considerably influenced the policymaking of different departments. The primary function of LSGs is to control the fragmentation and fraction within the party and government. The influence of Small Groups in Chinese politics is well noted from Mao’s times itself. The leading Small Groups played significant roles in all the historical incidents in China, especially with the cultural revolution and economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping.

The number and the role of leading small groups increased in the late 1970s. There were 39 SLGs known to the outside world in 2015 and within these, 21 worked under the government’s State Council and 18 under the Central Communist Party of China (CCP). The Comprehensively Deepening Reform Leading Small Group and Cybersecurity and Information SLG established by Xi Jinping in 2013 are newly established central CCP Small Leading Groups. Xi Jinping has chaired both the SLGs since their establishment. All other Leading Small Groups are headed by a Politburo member, the premier, a vice premier, or a state councillor. In most cases, the President of China chairs the key Small Leading Groups. In the case of Xi Jinping, he chairs the CCP Finance and Economy LSG, Foreign Affairs LSG, and Taiwan Affairs LSG. Unlike his predecessors, Xi Jinping directly controls the LSGs related to foreign policies and uses these LSGs for his ambitious projects and assertive foreign policy. But still some of the key Leading Small Groups are headed by the party politburo members and the State Council members related to their official responsibilities. For example, the propaganda and ideology LSG is headed by Liu Yunshan, and ten LSGs related to the economy are headed by Zhang Gaoli, Particularly the One Belt, One Road initiatives. 

Leading Small Groups and Foreign Policy Formulation

It is complicated to understand the role of Leading Small Groups in foreign policy formulation. Seven important Leading Small Groups work to formulate foreign policy or try to find a collective decision and avoid conflicts with different groups. The Leading Small Groups related to foreign policy are indicated in Table 1. Before 2018, the Central Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (FALG) was a commission associated with the Communist Party of China (CCP) that formulated and discussed matters related to foreign policies. In 2018, Xi Jinping created the Central Foreign Affairs Commission (FAC) and scrapped FALG. The FAC replaced FALG, and it became a substantial body for the foreign policy formulation since its origin. President Xi Jinping currently chairs the FAC, and premier Li Keqiang is deputy leader of the same. The membership includes CCP politburo members Yang Jiechi, foreign minister Wang Yi, and some selected people from CCP Politburo and government. The Foreign Affairs Commission generally collects different analysis views of the various departments and bureaucracies related to foreign affairs. FAC tries to avoid conflict by bringing all the departments together and making concise decisions. It is also alleged that the formation of FAS leads to more power concentration in the hands of Xi Jinping respective of foreign affairs.

Table 1: Leading Small Groups related to Foreign Policy

Leading Small GroupsChaired byMembers
Foreign Affairs CLGSGeneral Secretary/PremierVice Premier,State Councilor, Full membership is not available. 
State SecurityGeneral SecretaryPBSC members in charge of State security and public security affairs.Senior military intelligence officer.Representatives from state council officers on Taiwan affairs and Hong Kong and Macao affairs.
Overseas PropagandaCurrent leader Wang Huning. Heads of the party’s Propaganda and United Front Work department and the leaders of the party central news office, Xinhua, People’s Daily, and the ministry of culture  
TaiwanGeneral Secretary PBSC members on Taiwan, The state council Taiwan affairs office. The PLA general staff’s intelligence department. 
HK and MNo Information availableNo Information available
Finance and EconomicsGeneral secretary/ PremierNo Information available
EnergyPremierNo Information available

The role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not change under the Xi Jinping regime also. It is mainly responsible for the day-to-day work. It represents the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the international arena and takes several diplomatic decisions. Different think tanks under the government of the PRC and CCP help the ministry of foreign affairs in this process.

Xi Jinping and Concentration of Power

The supreme leadership plays a significant role in all the critical matters, particularly foreign and security policy decision-making in China. Xi Jinping has been general Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Chairman of the Central Military Commission since 2012, and President of the PRC since 2013. He has an inalienable and pre-eminent role in decision making like Mao, Deng and Jiang Zemin. Former President Hu Jintao did not enjoy tremendous power compared to his predecessors and the current President Xi Jinping. At the time of Hu Jintao, more actors had involved in decision-making, and decentralisation of power happened through LSGs. When Xi Jinping became the President of the PRC, he tried to concentrate more power and decision-making in his hands. He also has chaired several LSGs like the CCP Finance and Economy LSG, Foreign Affairs LSG, and Taiwan affairs LSG since 2012.

Xi Jinping became more active and visible on the international stage, and he introduced several foreign policy concepts like major country diplomacy and a community of shared futures. Domestically, he created new institutions involved in the foreign and security decision-making and managed all of them himself. In 2013, Xi Jinping created the National Security Commission (NSC), and he has chaired the NSC since then. The NSC particularly aims to deal with domestic security issues, but it also has some international responsibilities like border control and counterterrorism. In the same year, he created two more LSGs: they are the Comprehensive Deepening Reform Leading Small Group and the Cybersecurity and Information LSG. He has been chairing both SLGs since their establishment. 

 Conclusion

It is not easy to closely analyse the PRC’s internal structure and policy formulations due to its opaque nature. However, it is visible that LSGs have a notable role in the foreign policy formulations in China. President Xi Jinping tries to establish his dominance in foreign and security decision making by concentrating his influence on the LSGs. Xi Jinping introduced some structural changes in the formulation of foreign policy especially related to LSGs. He established small leading groups for deepening reforms after he became the president of the PRC. The establishment of the LSGs by Xi Jinping is viewed as a symptom of centralization and concentration of power, and indicates his emphasis on “top-level design”.  The LSGs also help to overcome the governance issues of the Party-state, and coordinate different segments in bureaucracies, government and CCP in policy-making processes. 

Xi Jinping introduced the Central Foreign Affairs Commission (FAC) in 2018 by replacing the Central Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (FALG). FAC became the paramount agency related to foreign affairs after its establishment. There are seven Leading Small Groups related to foreign affairs currently active in the PRC, and each has a significant role in foreign policy. The precise details about LSG’s membership and meetings are unavailable to the general public and the international media. The participation of Leading Small Groups in foreign affairs is well noted and tremendous in nature. Foreign affairs involve the participation of different departments, and LSGs play a significant role in coordination and concise decision-making among these departments. 

Albin Thomas is a research scholar at the Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India. He is doing research on “Economic Diplomacy of China under Xi Jinping”. He has published an article for Australian Institute of International Affairs. He is having keen interest in Chinese foreign policy, foreign policy of Xi Jinping, economic diplomacy, cross-strait relations. He can be contacted at albinjth@gmail.com, albin61_isb@jnu.ac.in and reached @albinthomas_ on Twitter.

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