Life of the Party: Xi’s New Politburo and China’s Tech Ambitions

Even under communist dictatorship, personnel is policy.

Last month, Xi consolidated his power by shaking up the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, removing factional rivals and packing the Politburo with supporters. The new lineup reflects Mr. Xi’s push to make China a technological superpower that can compete with the United States, both commercially and militarily.

According to the official description of the selection, the most important factor in swaying the leaders was loyalty to Mr. Xi. He forced his biggest rival into early retirement and filled all seven seats on the Politburo Standing Committee with allies. He also bypassed decades of experience to appoint a key ally, Li Qiang, as prime minister.

Those who have served Mr. Xi for many years now occupy almost half of the 24 Politburo seats. Most of those who remain have earned Mr. Xi’s trust over the past decade by faithfully advancing his leadership and implementing his policies. But most notable are the six appointees of the new Politburo, a new class of political elites created under Mr. Xi.

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This class is made up of leading experts in the fields of aerospace, public health and engineering who have not come through the system in the traditional way but have been selected to enter the upper chamber of power. This includes the former head of a state-owned arms supplier.

These people have been appointed to provincial leadership positions by Chairman Xi over the past 5-10 years despite having little or no political experience. As a result, he qualified to be appointed to the Political Bureau at the party congress held last month.

There must have been a political factor in Mr. Xi’s acceptance of this group. With many of his longtime collaborators nearing retirement, he needed a new base of support, free from the influence of factional politics, to which he owes his political career.

Although this is somewhat speculative, there is no doubt that their rise to the highest positions in the CCP is a sign of Mr. Xi’s emphasis on technological innovation. The main theme of Xi Jinping’s work report to the Party Congress was the domestic development of key technologies. This report is the most authoritative overview of the CPC’s priorities for the next five years.

It’s not just this group of relative political newcomers with tech credentials. At least two members of the Politburo have worked and studied in science and technology at some point in their careers.

Among the 205 full-fledged members of the Party Central Committee, technological literacy is even more evident. Citing data from the Brookings Institution, The Wall Street Journal reported that 40% of Central Committee members had backgrounds in science and technology, a sharp increase from 18% in the previous Central Committee.

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The emphasis on technology is nothing new. China’s long march toward indigenous innovation predates the Xi Jinping era. The CCP leadership has long viewed China’s reliance on the United States and its allies for key chokehold technologies as an existential security risk that must be addressed. The problem has been exacerbated by the deterioration of US-China relations since 2018, despite significant progress during Mr Xi’s first two terms in office thanks to initiatives such as Made in China 2025.

China is determined to close the technological gap with the United States and will not do so. By assembling the Politburo with scientists and engineers experienced in the most important areas of technology, Mr. Xi has demonstrated his commitment to this goal and is building a team to make it happen.

China has a long way to go to achieve its goal of “technological self-reliance,” and the United States should not help Mr. Xi.

But Washington needs to close regulatory loopholes that allow the transfer and sale of sensitive technology to China. Failure to do so would result in serious negligence in creating a China that could compete with the United States not only in science and trade, but also in military power.

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