China’s Ocean Policy Specialist to Miss Out on 20th Central Committee

Liu Cigui is perhaps the first high-profile casualty in China’s 2022 Party Congress race. He was effectively eliminated in December 2020 along with other Politburo potential Bayanqolu. Liu was promoted out of contention, being taken out of the Hainan party secretary position and “elevated” to central level as the vice chair of the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee. Sitting on this committee alone could have been an indication of Liu’s future role in China’s foreign policymaking and party power system. But this promotion out of the provincial party seat to a central position without a path to Politburo signals the end of his political career. His foreign policymaking career may live on though through the 2022-2027 political administration.

Liu’s early career was boilerplate. Like top leader Xi Jinping, Liu was a sent-down youth instead of attending bachelor studies, and then from the age of 20 went straight in to public service, emerging through various levels of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) organs in Fujian first via the Communist Youth League and then as spatial party secretaries, eventually of prefecture-level Putian, a coastal city of 2 million along the Xiamen-Quanzhou-Putian-Fuzhou coastal axis. Liu’s career began in earnest at the age of 34 when he spent three years as director of Fujian Oceanic and Fishery Bureau. Fish in Fujian is a social policy, a commercial and export staple, and an institutionally important policy position. He then stepped through the regional city governance structures, with five years as mayor and party secretary of Longyan prefectural level city, and then as mayor and party secretary of provincial capital Xiamen. Through this time the policy groundwork was also being laid for Fujian to geoeconomically connect to Middle East under the Maritime Silk Road policy.

Due to central-level prioritizing of ocean policy, Liu was able to move into the central-level Ministry of Land and Resources as director of the newly reformed specialized State Oceanic Administration. The State Oceanic Administration had a flourishing of administrative power and policy practice between 2013-2018; Liu was director from 2011 to 2014. As director, Liu competently helmed a powerful political and policy position, which for a time also had jurisdiction over the paramilitary China Coast Guard. Later 2018 State Council reforms brought the State Oceanic Administration directly back under an also reformed Ministry of Natural Resources, after which ocean and polar policymaking became more opaque.

The same State Council reforms in 2018 also pushed China Coast Guard command to the People’s Armed Police, with a revised People’s Armed Police Law effective 2021 that would further integrate the command and operational structures, allowing for People’s Armed Police deployment via Coast Guard vessels for domestic security operations in near-abroad theaters. With a newer Coast Guard Law also currently before the NPC, this institutional melding of People’s Armed Police and China Coast Guard remains a cause of concern for China’s maritime neighbors. Under Liu’s State Oceanic Administration tenure though, the China Coast Guard was more institutionally independent, and central policymaking on both oceans and poles enjoyed a period of relative autonomy.

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In 2015 Liu was promoted from the State Oceanic Administration back to provincial level as party secretary of Hainan, a wide-ranging policy position comprising South China Sea issues, development of Hainan’s free trade port project and tourism development, as well as wider Maritime Silk Road integration. Liu also remained a voice in wider ocean and polar policy as Hainan developed into the gatekeeper for South China Sea issues, the Singapore-Chongqing channel, Guangxi port developments, and Hong Kong surrogacy. The development of Hainan is critical to CCP future plans as a replacement to the international trade functions of Hong Kong, and both a macroeconomic and security gate for the newly developing Singapore to Chongqing New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor, as well as wider integration with the Zhejiang-Fujian-Guangzhou-Guangxi Maritime Silk Road project, particularly through the development of Guangxi’s ports. Hainan is also a gatekeeper jurisdiction for new critical infrastructure LNG import terminals in both Guangxi and Hainan. Hainan is thus integral to a new Shanghai-Chongqing-Singapore axis, which is designed to pull economic geographic gravity toward the southwest China port infrastructure, replacing the geographic and institutional significance of Hong Kong, and more closely integrate China’s southwest with Singapore.

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Liu’s tenure in Hainan was good, overseeing developments such as the Hainan Free Trade Law and Haikou free trade port. He was widely expected to be promoted to the center after his provincial tour; however, he was replaced as Hainan party secretary in December by Shen Xiaoming without a commensurate promotion to signal his path to the Politburo. There had been a direct path from Hainan to being admitted to the Politburo in October 2022, conceivably as director of the General Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission.

Liu is a Xi loyalist, part of the Fujian clique, and his status as sent down youth, coupled with his membership of the 130-member Central Commission for Discipline Inspection in 2013-2017, should have protected him from any reach of the 2021 rectification campaign. He would be 67 in 2020 making him eligible for one last promotion. The most obvious position would have been to the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, or possibly as NPC Standing Committee vice chair. Huge promotions would have been to NPC Standing Committee chair or fourth vice premier of the State Council, or the non-Politburo position of state councillor with a foreign affairs portfolio. A more successful career path would have needed him to have already been party secretary of Guangzhou, not simply Hainan. However his new position as deputy chair of the NPC Foreign Affairs Committee is a signal that he is being moved up and sideways, out of Politburo contention.

Liu, though, is likely to remain an influential source of foreign, ocean, and polar policy within the next administration, as the Hambantota-Gwadar-Duqm-Mombasa-Maputo maritime projection arc in the western Indian Ocean begins to take shape. Having presided over the development of both the State Oceanic Administration and Hainan’s integration into China’s globalization project, Liu Cigui still has potential to be a force in China’s foreign policy in the 2022-2027 administration. His experience in oceans, poles, and Maritime Silk Road and Indian Ocean territories, and the evolving Hong Kong-Hainan shift mean that Liu has already been shaping China foreign policy on the inside since 2011. Without Liu as a core central policymaker though, there will be a large foreign policy space to fill in the Sri Lanka, Oman, and Mozambique projects, as well as the emerging governance of China’s ocean-borne LNG import trade. In ocean policy at least, we should expect to see the end of the disastrous “wolf warrior” discourse and the rise of a new form of foreign policy practice, more concerned with building a narrative of China’s access rights to global commons with the China globalization narrative at the forefront.

While Liu’s demotion leaves a hole in Maritime Silk Road, ocean, and polar policy formation in elite China politics, there remains the potential for a younger politician to become the maritime answer to the space left by former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhang Gaoli in the Belt and Road policy arena. Liu Cigui’s NPC Foreign Affairs Committee position is a soft touch to push an old-hand into safe pastures. The institutional policy space left in the wake of Liu, though, is a powerful portfolio. Whoever fills Liu’s policy space will have to manage a retraction, rebranding, or recalculation of Belt and Road, particularly on any policy practice revision of the Maritime Silk Road. The institutions and personnel who take control of China’s ocean policy, polar policy, South China Sea policy, and Maritime Silk Road policy will have powerful voices in shaping China’s coming decade in global affairs.