Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 6

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

China watchers worldwide are focused on leadership changes expected at the 16th Communist Party congress this autumn. But reshuffles of perhaps equal significance are taking place now in the provinces and major cities. In the past year, about half of China’s thirty-one provinces and centrally administered cities have witnessed a changing of the guard. More personnel movements are expected in the rest of the regions in the coming months. These shifts are significant because most of the new party bosses, governors and mayors will be inducted into the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ruling Central Committee to be endorsed at the 16th congress.

In the current Politburo, only four out of twenty-one members hail from the localities. Yet the proportion of regionally based Politburo affiliates is expected to be increased at the 16th congress. What, then, are the traits and orientation of the regional stalwarts?


First, the new leaders are younger. Only twenty-one of the sixty-two provincial or municipal chieftains are over 60 years old, as against twenty-six a year ago. Moreover, three of them–the governors of Fujian, Henan and Qinghai, respectively Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang and Zhao Leji–are under 50. And Zhao, 44, is the first among the so-called Fifth Generation–a reference to officials in their late 30s to late 40s–to have made it to a top provincial job.

Equally important is that the regional supremoes are better educated–and they have had ample exposure to the West. More than 90 percent have bachelor’s degrees or above. And most governors and mayors have either paid trips to the United States and Europe–or undertaken short-term courses there. For example, the new mayor of Shanghai, Chen Liangyu, aged 56, spent nine months at Britain’s Birmingham University in 1992. And an increasing number of cadres at the level of vice governors and vice mayors are holders of postgraduate degrees from American and other foreign universities.

Despite the modernization in the cadre system, however, three problems fundamental to the political system have not been solved. A high proportion of the recent appointments are still based on the time-honored principle of factional balance. Thus, the two biggest CCP cliques–the Shanghai or Jiang Zemin Faction under President Jiang and the Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction under Vice President Hu Jintao–have done particularly well.

The head of the Party’s Organization Department, Zeng Qinghong, a Jiang protégé and former vice party boss of Shanghai, has played a key role in the reshuffles. Under his influence, cadres close to the Shanghai or Jiang Faction have been appointed or reappointed to several provinces and cities including Jiangxi, Guangxi, Shandong, Hainan, Shanghai and Chongqing. “Zeng has been accused by the other cliques of using the regional reshuffles to boost the Shanghai Faction’s share of Central Committee seats,” a veteran party cadre in Beijing said.

The elevation of younger and better-educated cadres will not solve the perennial problem of the rivalry between the party secretary on the one hand, and the governor or mayor on the other. In the past year or so, bitter struggles between the party boss and the head of executive wing of government have erupted in cities and provinces, including Shanghai, Chongqing, Jiangxi, Hainan and Yunnan.

All five instances called for the personal mediation of top leaders, President Jiang and Premier Zhu Rongji among them. The well-known bickering between the party secretary of Shanghai, Huang Ju, and the just departed mayor, Xu Kuangdi, was a particularly glaring case. The two’s failure to work in harmony was one reason behind the transfer to Beijing of Xu, who was very popular with foreign investors.

This was despite claims by new Mayor Chen that reports about the differences between Huang and Xu were “mere rumor mongering.” According to reforms introduced in the mid- to late-1980s by former Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, the role of party secretaries in units including factories and universities was curtailed to enable professional administrators such as managers and presidents to call the shots.

It was also Zhao’s idea that the authority of the party bosses of cities and provinces be reduced so that more powers would be given governors and mayors. Jiang, however, has put more emphasis on the old ideal of “party leadership,” which has resulted in administrative deadlocks in a number of key provinces and cities.

The other problem with the ongoing personnel changes is departure from the principle of checks and balances. For example, national and regional people’s congresses are supposed to supervise the work of the party committees and governments of the same level. In the fourteen provinces and major cities that have undergone reshuffles, however, four party secretaries have been concurrently appointed heads of provincial and municipal people’s congresses.

The phenomenon of party secretaries doubling as parliamentary chiefs is even more widespread in lower-level units such as counties and townships. It goes without saying that the so-called “principle of cross leadership” would undermine the supervisory functions of people’s congresses.


Given these limitations, it is not surprising that quite a few of the new leaders have been chosen more for loyalty–to the central leadership in general and a particular CCP faction in particular–rather than capability. The recent spate of mishaps ranging from explosions perpetrated by disgruntled workers to industrial accidents in coal mines and fireworks factories have cast doubt on the ability of regional cadres to acquit themselves in the fundamental task of maintaining law and order.

Then there was the total collapse of telephone service in Hainan Province late last month, when for nearly 24 hours, residents on the island could only rely on mobile phones. Diplomatic analysts say governors and party secretaries chosen on the basis of political reliability are unlikely to break new ground on reform.

The analysts say personnel movements that are expected before the 16th congress bear particular watching because they involve key cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, and provinces such as Guangdong and Sichuan. Moreover, the new party bosses–or reappointed incumbent party secretaries–of at least three of these five localities will gain Politburo slots.

It will come as no surprise that the two candidates favored to succeed long-time Shanghai Party Secretary Huang Ju are also ranking members of the Shanghai Faction: Education Minister Chen Zhili and Jiangxi Party Secretary Meng Jianzhu, both of whom are former vice party secretaries of the metropolis.

Liu Qi, the Beijing mayor who played a key role in his city’s successful bid to win the right to host the Olympics for 2008, is tipped to take over from Jia Qinglin as the party secretary of the capital. Both Jia and Liu are also considered close to Jiang. Like Shanghai’s Huang, Jia is expected to be made a vice chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC).

Guangdong Party Secretary Li Changchun, another key Jiang protégé, is tipped to gain a senior government post, perhaps vice premier, soon after the 16th congress. There are currently no known favorites to take Li’s place.

The party bosses of Chongqing and Sichuan, respectively He Guoqiang and Zhou Yongkang are likely to be reappointed. Zhou, one of the few regional leaders deemed to be close to NPC Chairman Li Peng, may gain a Politburo seat to show Beijing’s concern for the much-touted campaign to develop the western provinces.

The preponderance of members of the Shanghai or Jiang Faction among regional titans would serve to guarantee that despite the rise of Vice President Hu and his CYL Faction, the influence of Jiang and his cronies will remain for quite a long time to come.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.