In the United States, the president can seek advice from several councils and offices within his executive branch. For the most of the 20th century, the White House Chief of Staff has relied on a variety of economic, environmental, national security, science, budgetary related experts. Sometimes the president appoints them directly to his cabinet, an example being the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, Austan Goolsbee. There is a clear division of responsibility for the U.S. President’s advisees.
In China, however, President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and other members of the Politburo Standing Committee’s sources of advice from within the government are not as clearly categorized as those of the U.S. President’s. A recent issue of China’s policy-based newspaper Southern Weekend ran a piece on the Communist Party of China’s State Council’s Board of Counselors titled “The Backgrounds of the State Council’s ‘Experts’” in an attempt to understand the role the State Council’s Board of Counselors in policymaking. The report suggested that despite the high status and long existence of this purported “official political think tank,” the board has only recently revitalized its function.
The State Council’s Board of Counselors was created in 1949, the same year of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. At the time, a “united front” between the Communist Party and other parties was a popular idea and the board was supposed to serve as a platform to facilitate political deliberation. The board consisted of many experts outside the Communist Party to advise the leaders. Gradually, the ideal united front gave in to Mao’s own agendas and the political function of the board was rendered obsolete. The board and along with its parent agency the United Front Department still retain their symbolic presence and serve for the government’s “multi-party cooperation” rhetoric.
The article suggests that the role of the State Council’s Board of Counselors is becoming increasingly significant. During the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution, the board merely served as a safe haven for non-party officials and offered them lifelong benefits. Yet now the selection process is much more relevant to pressing issues. In 1990, the board was filled by scientists and engineers because the government was pushing for more basic infrastructure such as power stations and highway roads. Since 2003, the board has increased the variety of expert counselors and has divided them into subcategories of city development, macroeconomics, environment, culture, and international affairs. After the Party’s agenda for financial reform in 2007, financial analysts such as Hu Bengang (former Senior Technology Officer of the Chase Manhattan Bank) also received appointment. This year, in response to worsening social conflicts, CPC appointed 8 of the experts in the fields of “social management” as counselors. These fields include the controversial “letters and visits” petition system, one of the few resources for Chinese people to voice their problems. This trend of appointments affirms the increasing relevance of the board.
Furthermore, the article cites that the party did not appoint more than 10 percent of Communists on to the board before. Yet from 2003 to 2011, 25 of the 51 counselors have been members of the Communist party. On that note, CPC members have the most policymaking experience (such as participating within the National Congress or becoming any sort of official). Similarly, China’s professionals and intelligentsia have been co-opted by the party. In the context of selecting counselors, the increase of Communists on the board shows the importance of merit rather than party affiliation in recent years.
The article also shows that Premier Wen has briefed with these counselors more than any other premier. He has encouraged counselors during briefings to speak the truth. The article quotes him saying, “Listen to the people’s ideas and brainstorm together” and “cite stories” (as opposed to the usual party rhetoric). The Southern Weekend article did not have the resources to assess the results, but this blogger believes that the increasing significance of the board members will have consequences on the decision of the CPC’s policymaking.
Your blogger attempts to understand and clarify the process of policymaking in China through writing a series of blog articles.