China retains central bank chief in unexpected move

Xi’s decision to pack the Communist Party’s top leadership with loyalists has stoked concerns about him prioritising ideology at the expense of economic growth

People’s Bank of China (PBOC) Governor Yi Gang attends a news conference in Beijing, China on 3 March, 2023

China retained its central bank chief in a surprise move on Sunday, as the country appointed a cabinet focused on fighting economic headwinds.

Yi Gang was confirmed as governor of the People’s Bank of China at a meeting of China’s rubber-stamp national legislature, against expectations that retirement-age Yi would step down.

Two top economic officials -- commerce minister Wang Wentao and finance minister Liu Kun -- were also retained, as well as National Health Commission director Ma Xiaowei, who oversaw China’s zero-Covid policy.

The cabinet faces the task of revitalising the Chinese economy, which last year expanded just three per cent -- one of its weakest performances in decades.

General Li Shangfu, who was sanctioned by the US government in 2018 for buying Russian weapons, was named defence minister.

US-China tensions have worsened in recent weeks, exacerbated by the entry of an alleged Chinese spy balloon into US airspace and accusations that Beijing might supply Moscow with weapons to use against Ukraine.

President Xi Jinping slammed the United States this week for leading an effort of “containment, encirclement and suppression of China”.

Li’s appointment is “a deliberate pushback against US sanctions”, said Manoj Kewalramani, China expert at the Takshashila Institution in Bengaluru, India.

The move “demonstrates Beijing’s willingness to engage in brinkmanship” and will “add another hurdle in US-China engagement, which is already very constrained”, he told AFP.

Key Xi allies

The National People’s Congress also confirmed key Xi allies to its cabinet.

Top Xi aide Ding Xuexiang and He Lifeng, a longtime colleague of Xi’s, were nominated to vice premier positions by new premier Li Qiang.

Ding and He received almost all votes from more than 2,900 legislators, with former mayor of Tianjin Zhang Guoqing as well as former Shaanxi province party secretary Liu Guozhong also selected as vice premiers.

Xi has stacked the top levels of government with loyalists as he cements his grip on power. Trusted ally Li Qiang was confirmed as premier on Saturday, just a day after Xi was unanimously selected by legislators for a norm-breaking third term as president.

“Both Ding and He have been close political allies to President Xi, and Mr He and President Xi have known each other for decades,” Nomura analysts wrote in a recent note.

“Such close relationships may help the new government’s policy delivery and cross-ministry coordination,” the analysts said.

Xi’s decision to pack the Communist Party’s top leadership with loyalists has stoked concerns about him prioritising ideology at the expense of economic growth.

China has set a growth target of “around five per cent” for 2023, one of the lowest in decades, as the world’s second-largest economy widely missed its growth target in the face of strict Covid curbs and a simmering property crisis.

The national legislature this week approved a broad restructuring of government departments, aimed at boosting self-reliance in manufacturing.