Changes at the top

What lies behind the removal of Chongqing’s Party boss?


Going down, not up: Sun Zhengcai

After news emerged in June that Chongqing’s police chief He Ting had been hauled in by anti-graft investigators, a dark joke began to do the rounds within China’s largest municipality, praising the resilience of the city. “Four top cops in this city have turned out to be bad guys,” it lamented. “But the great people of Chongqing still manage to keep the local economy growing at the fastest pace among all municipalities.”

He Ting took over from Wang Lijun, the right-hand man of Chongqing’s former Party boss Bo Xilai. Both Bo and Wang were jailed for corruption in 2012. Two of Wang’s predecessors have been disgraced for similar reasons so it would seem that clean government prerequisite for businesses to thrive in the southwestern city.

Chongqing’s economy grew another 10.5% in the first half, topping provincial growth elsewhere for the 10th consecutive quarter (Chongqing is one of four municipalities with the same political and economic status as a province).

In a further twist, Bo’s replacement as Party secretary of Chongqing is now being questioned himself. Late last month Sun Zhengcai was accused of “serious discipline violations”, shorthand for corruption charges. While the authorities have refused to detail the reasons behind Sun’s downfall, the state media has hailed the probe as another example of Xi Jinping’s unprecedented anti-graft campaign, with Xinhua saying that Sun’s case showed the anti-corruption drive makes no exceptions.

Chen Miner, formerly Party boss of Guizhou province and a protégé of Xi, will now take Chongqing’s top political job.

Sun’s detention has shocked local politicians and observers alike. The 53 year-old was considered a rising star – the youngest politician in the 25-member Politburo and a prime candidate for a position on the Standing Committee (now comprised of seven leaders) to be unveiled at the 19th Party Congress later this year.

The political summit, held once every five years, is expected to take place in October or November as 2,000 delegates gather to elect a new crop of Party leaders. Current practice – conceived by former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to ensure consensual government – limits China’s leaders to two terms as the Chinese Communist Party’s General Secretary and has traditionally imposed compulsory retirement for Politburo members older than 68. The Chinese premier also gets 10 years in office to run the government.

But the dismissal of Sun has reinforced the impression that some of these unwritten rules are now fragmenting. Some observers now believe that Xi has amassed so much power that he is likely to stay on as supreme leader beyond 2022. To pull this off, he has been trying to get as many seats as possible for his allies at Politburo level, the New York Times noted, and this partly explains Sun’s dismissal.

The Hong Kong Economic Times reckons Xi could even try to amend the Party’s charter to reinstall the post of chairman, a post once held by a certain Mao Zedong but abolished since 1982. If ‘Chairman Xi’ gets his way, the newspaper suggests, he might stay on as China’s effective leader in a move similar to Russia’s power-switching reshuffle in 2008 (which saw Vladimir Putin step down as president but stay in power as the prime minister).

Perhaps the greatest speculation is over the future of Wang Qishan, specifically whether he will retire.

Wang has been Xi’s most powerful ally as his anti-graft tsar, but at 69 he should be stepping down in the autumn, based on prior practice. But this convention may also be broken. According to the Financial Times, Wang may even get a promotion to the role of Premier. This speculation also sees the incumbent, Li Keqiang, “promoted” to be head of the Chinese legislature, a position technically senior to that of prime minister.

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