- - Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Personnel is policy, even in a communist dictatorship.

Last month, Xi Jinping consolidated his power by engineering a shake-up of Chinese Communist Party leadership, sidelining factional rivals and stacking the Politburo with his protégés. The new lineup reflects Mr. Xi’s push to make China into a technological superpower that can rival the United States both commercially and militarily.

The most important factor in the leadership shake-up was loyalty to Mr. Xi, as official explanations of the selection process make clear. He forced his top rivals into early retirement and filled all seven seats of the Politburo Standing Committee with his allies. He also circumvented decades of precedent to appoint a key ally — Li Qiang — as premier.

Longtime protégés of Mr. Xi now occupy roughly half of the 24 seats in the Politburo. Most of the rest have won Mr. Xi’s trust by loyally promoting his leadership and implementing his policies over the last decade. But what is most striking are the six appointees — one-fourth of the new Politburo — who belong to a new class of political elites that has emerged under Mr. Xi.

This class consists of leading experts in aerospace, public health and engineering who did not rise through the system the traditional way but were hand-picked to enter the highest halls of power. It also includes the former head of a state-owned weapons supplier.

Despite having little or no political experience, these people were appointed by Mr. Xi to senior provincial leadership posts in the last five to 10 years. This qualified them for Politburo appointment at last month’s Party Congress.

There was likely a political element in Mr. Xi’s embrace of this group. With many of his longtime protégés nearing retirement, he needed a new support base, free of the influence of factional politics, that would owe their political careers to him.

While that’s somewhat speculative, there is no doubt that their elevation to the CCP’s most senior ranks reflects the emphasis Mr. Xi places on technological innovation. The domestic development of key technologies was a major theme of Mr. Xi’s work report to the Party Congress. That report constitutes the most authoritative outline of CCP priorities for the next five years.

It’s not just this group of relative political newbies who have tech credentials, though. At least two other members of the Politburo have worked or studied in science and technology fields at some point in their careers. 

Technology backgrounds are even more prominent among the 205 full members of the Party’s Central Committee. Citing data from the Brookings Institution, The Wall Street Journal reports that 40% of Central Committee members have science and technology backgrounds — a sharp increase from the 18% of the previous Central Committee.

This emphasis on technology isn’t new. China’s long march for indigenous innovation predates the Xi era. The CCP leadership has long viewed China’s reliance on the U.S. and its allies for key chokepoint technologies as an existential security risk that must be overcome. Significant progress was made in Mr. Xi’s first two terms, due to initiatives such as Made in China 2025, but the deterioration of U.S.-China relations since 2018 has given the matter even greater urgency.

China is determined to close the technology gap with the U.S. and will stop at nothing to do so. By stacking the Politburo with scientists and engineers experienced in some of the most important technological areas, Mr. Xi is both showing his determination to accomplish this task and assembling a team to get it done.

China still has a long way to go before it achieves its goal of “technological self-reliance,” and the U.S. should not help Mr. Xi get there.

Rather, Washington should close regulatory loopholes that allow the transfer and sale of sensitive technologies to China. Failure to do so would be grossly negligent, helping produce a China that could rival the U.S. not only in science and commerce, but also in military strength as well.

Michael Cunningham is a research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. Ilan Hulkower is a member of Heritage’s Young Leaders Program.

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