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Aug 30, 2012, 09.59 AM IST
China's Communist Party is considering downgrading the role of domestic security chief as part of a move to a new and smaller top elite, reflecting fears that the position has become too powerful, sources said.
Reducing the party's Politburo Standing Committee, the inner council at the apex of power, from nine to seven members would come as part of a once-in-a-decade leadership change expected in the next few weeks or months.
China's domestic security chief, Zhou Yongkang, faces defeat if his successor does not follow his example, and that of recent predecessors, and win a place at the top table.
Before he was tainted in a succession of scandals that hurt the Communist Party this year, Zhou expanded his role into one of the most powerful, and controversial, fiefdoms in the one-party government.
He has been on the Politburo Standing Committee since 2007 while also heading the central Political and Legal Affairs Committee, a sprawling body that oversees law-and-order policy.
That double status allowed Zhou to dominate a domestic security budget of USD 110 billion a year. But the hulking, grim-faced 69-year-old is due to retire along with most members of the Standing Committee at the 18th Party Congress, which will meet before the end of the year.
Leaders appear likely to put a tighter leash on Zhou's successor as head of domestic security by keeping him or her off the down-sized Standing Committee. That successor would remain a member of the less powerful Politburo, which has 24 members -- returning to a pattern the party kept to for much of the 1980s.
The provisional agreement to shrink the Standing Committee and to effectively downgrade the status of Zhou's successor has been rumoured for months and firmed up during secret discussions since July, said six sources with direct ties to senior leaders and retired party elders.
"As things now stand, the Political and Legal Affairs Committee secretary won't be in the Standing Committee. He'll have to answer to someone in the Standing Committee. Basically, he won't be his own judge anymore," said a retired party official who remains close to many sitting senior officials.
"I don't think all the people (in the Standing Committee) have been decided, but it seems clear it will be seven."
He and other sources spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing recriminations from discussing secretive party issues.
Zhou was implicated in rumours that he hesitated in moving against the politician Bo Xilai, who fell in a divisive scandal. Security forces also suffered a humiliating failure when they allowed blind rights advocate Chen Guangcheng to escape from 19 months of house arrest and flee to the US embassy in Beijing.
Such fumbles gave President Hu Jintao and his virtually certain successor, Vice President Xi Jinping, a shared motive to put a growing array of police forces and domestic security services under firmer oversight, said Xie Yue, a professor of political science at Tongji University in Shanghai.
"It seems quite likely that Hu and Xi have mustered the will to demote the political standing of the Political and Legal Affairs Committee," he said.
"They're taking advantage of the opinion that the committee's reach has gone too far, and that it's created too many problems and scandals."
Since the 1990s, China's efforts to stifle crime, unrest and dissent have allowed the domestic security apparatus -- including police, armed militia and state security officers -- to accumulate power, and the domestic security budget now outstrips the military's in size.
"There's been a lot of criticism inside the party of the Political and Legal Affairs Committee," said a businesswoman with family ties to a senior politician, referring to Zhou's portfolio. "Zhou Yongkang remains in power, but his voice doesn't have the same impact."
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