Municipal maneouvres

More political reshuffling ahead of the 19th Party Congress

Huang Xingguo

Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin are the four ‘directly-controlled municipalities’ under the central government. The quartet enjoys similar political and jurisdictional rights to provinces, which is an indicator of their elite status.

Now the four have something less glorious in common: each is home to a Party boss removed for corruption. And in each case, the purges occurred shortly before the Communist Party’s quinquennial leadership reshuffle.

Chinese social media picked up on the latest case last weekend when the Party’s discipline watchdog announced that Huang Xingguo, acting Party secretary of Tianjin, was being removed from his post because of “serious violation of discipline”, a term that usually implies corruption.

Observers had smelled something wrong with Huang’s political prospects for months. The 62 year-old was made mayor of Tianjin in 2007 and he took on the additional role of acting Party chief in 2014. However, he had not been permanently appointed and his star dimmed further last August, when a deadly warehouse explosion killed more than 170 people in Tianjin (see WiC292). Huang had said he should bear “non-excusable” responsibility for the tragedy.

Being the boss of a directly-controlled municipality usually means an automatic promotion to the ruling Politburo committee. This comprises 25 or so of the Party’s top officials, elected by about 2,000 Party members.

They will be casting their ballots again shortly before the 19th National Party Congress next year (likely held in October). Chinese President Xi Jinping was elected the Party’s supreme leader at the 18th edition of the Congress in 2012. Just months before the reshuffle, Bo Xilai, then the Party chief of Chongqing was arrested for corruption (though it was rumoured he wanted Xi’s job and had plotted a coup).

“History always has its ironic coincidences,” Taiwan’s Central News Agency observes, adding that Shanghai’s Party chief Chen Liangyu was removed on graft accusations ahead of the 17th Congress, while Chen Xitong, formerly in charge of Beijing, fell from grace before the 15th Congress.

Before Huang’s removal there had been 12 changes of Party secretaries in 32 provinces and regions this year. Many of the new appointees, such as the new bosses in Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as Huang’s successor in Tianjin (Li Hongzhong) are allies of Xi, the South China Morning Post has suggested.

“It was clear Xi intended to install his picks in the ruling team, even though some of the appointees were not regarded as having the necessary rank or experience,” it reports, citing Beijing-based analyst Zhang Lifan.

According to custom, five of the seven current members of the Standing Committee should retire next year because they are older than 68. The only exceptions are Xi and his prime minister Li Keqiang. A younger heir apparent would normally be promoted to the Standing Committee – as Xi was in 2007 – given the usual 10-year tenure for the country’s supreme leader. But HK01, a news portal based in Hong Kong, thinks that the “10-year rule” isn’t guaranteed. “Observers are speculating that Xi may not allow a strong candidate [and his heir apparent] to emerge in the 19th Congress. A fault line will appear in the top leadership,” it noted last month. “This will help Xi to extend his reign beyond 2022, thus breaking the 10-year rule consensus.”

How about Wang Qishan? Xi’s closest ally will turn 69 next year, but many think the anti-corruption tsar will stay on. Certainly, local politicians in Tianjin fear his anti-graft team. Since the deadly blast in the city last year more than 35 senior officials have been detained or removed from office. And Liaoning’s provincial legislature has also been wrestling with an unprecedented political vacuum this month, when Wang’s anti-corruption investigators unearthed a vote-buying scandal and expelled 45 lawmakers.

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