Politics Watch: Yang Jiechi’s South Africa Trip is a Diplomatic Puzzle

On March 22, China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying announced that Politburo member Yang Jiechi would visit South Africa from March 23 to March 24.

Yang would be making the trip in the capacity of Xi Jinping’s special representative, Hua said.

The backdrop:
1. On March 16, the South Korea foreign ministry announced that Yang Jiechi’s March 21 to March 22 trip to the country would be rescheduled to March 28 to March 29.

At the Chinese foreign ministry press conference on March 15, spokesperson Lu Kang said he had “no information to offer at this moment” when asked about Yang’s South Korea visit.

2. Yang was not named to any state positions at the Two Sessions even though he was widely expected to take up a foreign affairs job in the state government hierarchy.

3. According to China’s March 21 plan for Party and state institutional reform, the Party’s Foreign Affairs Leading Group is now the Foreign Affairs Work Commission. Barring an unexpected development, Xi should become the Commission’s head and Wang Qishan should be named deputy head. Yang Jiechi could be appointed as the Commission’s secretary-general and director.

Our take:
1. In our article analyzing Yang Jiechi’s post-Two Sessions career directions, we noted that he would have problems with diplomatic protocol should he partake in foreign interactions with non-communist countries with only a Party post. While this issue can be smoothed over if he makes trips as Xi’s special representative, it is hard to imagine that this arrangement is a long-term solution to his lack of a state job.

2. The rescheduling of Yang’s South Korea trip hints an unexpected development. We believe that this development could have something to do with Yang not being named to a state job befitting his sub national-level rank (such as State Council vice premier) at the Two Sessions. Yang’s South Africa trip appears to be hastily arranged, and could serve as a cover for the unexpected development.

3. What could the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) be trying to cover up with the rescheduling of Yang Jiechi’s South Korea trip? We believe that either Yang is in trouble, or there is trouble brewing on the Korean Peninsula. Given the absence of unusual activity by North Korea recently, we are more inclined to believe that the CCP is in a predicament over Yang.

4. Under CCP rule, China affairs appear to be a black box. Still, it is possible to get a good sense of what is going on inside the black box from studying publicly available information with sufficient understanding of Party culture, unwritten norms, and factional struggle in elite CCP politics.