Zhao Kezhi’s Legacy Could Define China’s Regional Security Paradigm

Zhao Kezhi enjoyed a fortuitous run through the gauntlet of the mini-purge political cleanup at the end of the first Xi administration in 2016. As minister of public security, Zhao is now head of a strengthened internal security apparatus for the second purge ahead of a probable third Xi term. But Zhao’s legacy will not be one of personal luck and a happy career. The legacy he passes on will shape the domestic security apparatus for the 2022-2032 period.

Looking to the 2022 Party Congress, personnel promotions for the Politics and Legal Affairs Commission are in a strange place. Zhao should naturally move up to replace Guo Shengkun as secretary of the commission, but by party age rules both Guo and Zhao should retire in 2022, meaning both the commissar and the public security minister positions should be filled. Political and legal affairs secretary is a Politburo spot, whereas the minister of public security, as internal security deputy, is not. Politics and legal affairs secretary was historically a Politburo Standing Committee place, but that tradition was changed after the Zhou Yongkang Affair. At this distance from October 2022, Chen Yixin seems the front-runner to takeover as secretary. But whoever replaces Zhao Kezhi will be on the front-line of stability maintenance for first half of a decade, where both Xinjiang and cybersecurity are already key policy positions.

Zhao was barely 19 when he began work as a middle school teacher in 1973, suggesting familial protection from the Cultural Revolution. Early education had to be eschewed for entry-level Party positions. Zhao then later walked through the requisite Central Party School postgraduate training, which is essentially a precursor to higher administrative promotion. Zhao’s career has far exceeded his early potential, having been mostly confined to his native Shandong from 1973 to 2010. He has not done the conventional tour of duty characteristic of a Youth League factionite groomed for national leadership. After Shandong, Zhao was tested with a promotion into CCP leadership positions in neighboring Jiangsu, continuing in party rather than state leadership positions, which has been indicative of a gravitational shift in promotion patterns under Xi.

Zhao’s big career move came after only two years in Jiangsu, first to acting governor and then governor of Guizhou province. Guizhou is traditionally a policy testing ground, too poor for anyone to care if the policies fail. China’s top economists have worked extensively on policy trials in the region to first reduce poverty and overcome the difficulties of integrating it with the coastal industrial growth model, and later to develop innovation and science and technology industries and most recently an ambitious plan to economically integrate Guizhou into the emerging Chongqing-Singapore spatial plan.

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While the current Politburo leadership has been characterized as the Zhijiang New Army, for those CCP cadres at or near the top having touched Zhejiang province in some way, a newer crop of Xi loyalists has come up through Guizhou. Loosely adjacent to the Chongqing model, but under closer central command than Bo Xilai was, this Guizhou Gang was a testbed for some of China’s current elite leaders including rising stars Chen Yixin and Chen Gang, as well as the more established Li Zhanshu and Chen Min’er. Current Politics and Legal Affairs Commission Secretary Guo Shengkun was also vice party secretary of neighboring Guangxi for four years and the party secretary of Guangxi for five years, before moving up to the national central level to be party secretary and minister of public security.

In Guizhou, Zhao oversaw the development of a new political clique and a node in China’s new national development model. With Zhao at the helm, Guizhou developed from a backward economy orphaned from the coastal growth experience into a new Third Front industrial technology center. Guizhou was to be developed into a techno-industrial command economy to cover China’s push into global technological competition, trade wars, and technology self-sufficiency. The failed joint venture with chip maker Qualcomm was supposed to be a vanguard bringing high-technology transfer to the region. Massive infrastructure builds in internet hardware paved the way for the state developing a cloud computing and artificial intelligence center in Guizhou, to supplement the existing and expanded satellite technologies and the development of high technology manufacturing centers.

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Between leading Guizhou and his current post as minister of public security, Zhao was Hebei party secretary, moving up in 2015 to replace Zhou Benshun who was purged under the anti-corruption campaign. In Hebei, China’s traditional steel center and core of the new public administration integration of Jingjinji, Zhao steadied the ship. Zhao was rewarded for his loyalty in the 19th Party Congress with a promotion to a one-term position as state councillor and minister of public security. The techno-industrial stream developed in Guizhou and Hebei would follow now-Minister Zhao into an unlikely geography: Central Asia via the institutional export of the internal surveillance regime.

Zhao was an integral ally in the recentralization of both the China Coast Guard and the People’s Armed Police back under Central Military Commission (and Xi Jinping’s) leadership. Zhao has been a pliant and amenable second in command. After 2022, the new minister of public security, as deputy of the Politics and Legal Affairs Commission, will have a much larger policy mandate to inherit than either Guo Shengkun had under Meng Jianzhu or Zhao himself had under Guo.

For the past five years, under Guo Shengkun, Zhao has been second in charge of the domestic security apparatus, which has been increasingly strengthened domestically and tentatively deployed in near abroad Belt and Road states. While China’s near Pacific neighbors have analyzed the calculus of the Coast Guard Law for the East China and South China Sea theaters, much less analysis has focused on Political and Legal Affairs Commission’s engagement with, and transfer of, the domestic surveillance state to the Central Asia and Eurasian Belt and Road states. The 2022-2027 Political and Legal Affairs and Ministry of Public Security leadership that takes over from Zhao will continue development of this near abroad domestic security and national security integration in conjunction with an expanded domestic security mandate.