In mid-January, the Chinese Communist Party further confirmed Xi Jinping’s status as the second-most powerful politician since Chairman Mao Zedong by enshrining “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a new era” in the State Constitution. This followed Xi Thought’s insertion into the CCP Constitution at the 19th Party Congress in October (People’s Daily, January 24; Radio Free Asia, January 19). Since the CCP’s foundation in 1921, no leader other than Mao has earned such an elevated place in the party pantheon. In Chinese elite politics, however, what matters most is whether a paramount leader can fill senior positions in the Party and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with his allies and cronies.
In the run-up to and at the 19th Party Congress, Xi appointed dozens of his protégés to the Politburo as well as top Party posts such as the heads of the Central Committee General Office, the Organization Department and the Propaganda Department (BBC Chinese, October 25, 2017; HK01.com [Hong Kong], October 25, 2017). Moreover, in the wake of the massive restructuring of the PLA command-and-control apparatus in December 2015 and January 2016, Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman and Commander-in-Chief Xi named trusted generals to scores of senior military slots. The purge of “enemy factions” in the PLA was completed with the arrest early this month of former Chief of the General Staff General Fang Fenghui on alleged corruption. Fang was linked to the two “big tigers” of the PLA, former Central Military Commission vice-chairmen Generals Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, who were arrested under Xi’s orders in 2015 (Xinhua, January 9; Global Times, January 9). In the New Year, Xi moved to further consolidate his hold over the military through the virtual merger of the PLA and the quasi-military People’s Armed Police. The PAP, which had been under the dual control of the CMC and the State Council since its founding in 1982, will henceforward report only to the CMC (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], December 27, 2017; Oriental Daily [Hong Kong], November 5, 2017).
What is perhaps even more significant is that after the 19th Party Congress, the “core leader” and zuigaotongshuai (最高统帅; “supreme commander”) has been filling top regional posts—the party secretaries, governors and mayors of important provinces and cities—with members of the so-called Xi Jinping Faction. Reshuffles have also taken place at the vice-governor level or equivalent in almost all of China’s 31 major administrative districts (China News Service, January 7). The Xi Faction refers mainly to Xi’s subordinates, associates and followers when he served in Fujian (1985-2002), Zhejiang (2002-2007) and Shanghai (2007). Sub-sets of the Faction consist of cadres who have worked in his home province of Shaanxi, as well as graduates of Tsinghua University, Xi’s alma mater. Shaanxi-related officials have gained Xi’s trust through taking good care of the many members of the Shaanxi-based Xi Clan (See China Brief, June 9, 2017). This will ensure that Xi will be spared the conundrum that has bedeviled generations of top leaders, namely “orders cannot go beyond the Zhongnanhai [party headquarters] to the rest of the country.”
These appointments have confirmed the fact that the Xi Faction is now the most dominant clique within the higher echelons of regional administrations. Highest-ranked Xi cronies who have benefitted from the latest reshuffles are Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang (born 1959) and Guangdong Party Secretary Li Xi (1956). A former party secretary of Jiangsu, one of China’s richest provinces, Li Qiang spent the bulk of his career in Zhejiang. He was the party secretary of the “quasi-capitalist haven” of Wenzhou and secretary-general of the provincial party committee when Xi was party boss of the same province. Li Xi served in Shaanxi from 2004 to 2011, during which he cultivated good ties Xi’s relatives in the central China province. Both were inducted into the Politburo at the 19th Party Congress. Another Shaanxi alumnus who has made good is Wang Dongfeng (1958), who was based in Xi’s native province from 1981 to 2004. He was named Deputy Party Secretary of Tianjin in 2013 and Mayor of the metropolis in early 2017. Shortly after the 19th Party Congress, Wang was promoted Party Secretary of Hebei Province (Caixin.com, January 4; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], January 1; People’s Daily, November 1, 2017; South China Morning Post, October 29, 2017).
Yet the biggest contingent of Xi Faction affiliates who have been rewarded with promotions comprises his underlings and associates in Fujian and Zhejiang. Take, for example the newly appointed Fujian Party Secretary Yu Weiguo (born 1955). Yu began his career in Fujian in 1995 as Assistant Party Secretary of the port city of Xiamen, which is also where Xi served when he first arrived in the coastal province in 1985. Yu rose to the position of Xiamen Party Secretary in 2009. From 2013, he climbed the Fujian hierarchy rapidly by becoming first Deputy Party Secretary, then Governor and now Party Secretary. Another fast-rising member of the Xi Faction is Tang Yijun (1961), who was installed Mayor of Chongqing early this month. Tang, who spent almost his entire career in Zhejiang was in charge of the anti-corruption apparatus during the five years Xi was based in the rich coastal province. Last year, Tang attained the rank of Party Secretary of the major city of Ningbo as well as Deputy Party Secretary of the province before his transfer to Chongqing (Caixin.com, October 30, 2017; Tianjin Radio, October 29, 2017).
Also consider the intriguing career of Hu Huping (born 1962), who was appointed Party Secretary of Shaanxi earlier this month. After graduating with a degree in hydraulic engineering at Tsinghua University, he worked in teaching and administrative posts at China’s premier institute of learning until he became Party Secretary of Tsinghua from 2008 to 2013. Hu was transferred to Zhejiang in 2013, where he served for two years as Director of the provincial Organization Department. He was then promoted to be Deputy Party Secretary of Shaanxi in 2015, after which he rose rapidly through the ranks to become the province’s No. 1 cadre (Singtao Daily [Hong Kong], October 30, 2017; CCTV.com, October 29, 2017).
Apart from Xi’s protégés and cronies, a number of newly elevated cadres have backgrounds in the defense, aerospace and high-tech sectors. This tallies with Xi’s belief that there should be a symbiotic relationship between the civilian and military sectors (See China Brief, October 26, 2014). One of the most famous members of this so-called Defense-Aerospace Faction in party politics is Zhang Guoqing (born 1964), who was transferred early January from Mayor of Chongqing to Mayor of Tianjin. An electrical engineer by training, Zhang spent almost his entire career at the China North Industries Group Corp (Norinco), which is China’s largest arms manufacturer. Nicknamed the “young marshal of the defense industry,” Zhang became a Vice-President of Norinco in 1996, when he was barely 32-years-old. After serving as Norinco’s President from 2008 to 2013, he was transferred to Chongqing as Deputy Party Secretary, and later, Mayor (Economics Daily, January 2; Lianhe Zaobao [Singapore], January 1).
Equally meteoric is the career of the new Party Secretary of Liaoning Chen Qiufa (born 1954), who worked for decades in the defense and aerospace establishment. While he was trained in electrical engineering at the National Defense University, Chen held posts in the administrative and disciplinary fields at the now-defunct Ministry of Aerospace Industry, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, and the Commission for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND). From 2000 to 2013, he was Vice-Minister at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), which has close ties to the military R&D establishment. Chen was appointed Deputy Party Secretary of Liaoning in 2015. He subsequently became governor, and early this month, Party Secretary of the northeastern province (Ming Pao, October 1, 2017). Another ex-MIIT technocrat who has won Xi’s favor is Lou Qinjian (1956), who was MIIT Vice-Minister from 2008 to 2010. Previously, Lou, who has a doctorate in computer science, served in research and administrative positions at the now-defunct Ministry of Electronic Industry (1982-1998) and the Ministry of Information Industry (a forerunner of MIIT) from 1998 to 2008. Transferred to Shaanxi as vice-governor in 2010, Lou rose to the top post of Party Secretary of the province in 2016. He was transferred to Jiangsu one month after the 19th Party Congress (People’s Daily, January 23, 2018; Jiangsu Party Committee News, October 27, 2017).
One major takeaway of these personnel developments is that several Sixth Generation (roughly defined as cadres born in the late 1950s to the late 1960s) rising stars have been identified who could become candidates as Xi’s successor. Until the 19th Party Congress, attention had been focused on the Chongqing Party Secretary Chen Min’er (born 1960), who seemed to enjoy the patronage of Xi. However, apart from involvement in poverty relief when he was a top official in impoverished Guizhou Province (see China Brief, December 8, 2017), Chen’s career lacks involvement in important policies that typically mark a national-level cadre. Chen’s 6G competitors include Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang (1959), Shaanxi Party Secretary Hu Heping (1962), Hebei Party Secretary Wang Dongfeng (1958), Tianjin Mayor Zhang Guoqing (1964), Chongqing Mayor Tang Liangzhe (1960) and Liaoning Governor Tang Yijun (1961). 6G rising stars coming from the party system are represented by Ding Xuexiang (1962), the Head of the Personal Office of President Xi Jinping (国家主席办公厅主任), who was promoted to the Politburo with the substantive post of Director of the Central Committee General Office at the 19th Party Congress (Oriental Daily [Hong Kong], October 24, 2017; Ming Pao, August 15, 2017).
The fact that the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee endorsed by the 19th Party Congress did not contain any 6G potential successors is a good indication that Xi (born 1953) plans to remain the paramount leader at least until the 21st Party Congress in 2027. It is, however, likely that at the 20th Party Congress scheduled for 2022, at least one 6G cadre will be inducted into the PBSC as heir-apparent to Xi. In the well-established party tradition, this leader-in-waiting will undertake a five-year apprenticeship for the post of General Secretary. Given that it is also an ingrained CCP convention that the General Secretary must have ample experience serving in local-level administration, Xi’s successor could well emerge among the 6G regional cadres elevated in the past few months. Apart from achievements in traditional areas such as GDP growth, these competitors for Xi’s mantle must above all demonstrate that they would profess total and unqualified fealty to what his admirers call “the Mao Zedong of the 21st Century.”