Xi Jinping Promotes Protégés to Top Positions in run-up to 19th Party Congress

Publication: China Brief Volume: 17 Issue: 8

Beijing Party Secretary Cai Qi (蔡奇) is one of several appointments by Xi Jinping of former, loyal, colleagues to important positions.

Much attention has been paid to how, in the wake of the seemingly isolationist tendencies of President Donald Trump, President Xi Jinping is highlighting Beijing’s readiness to provide global leadership in areas ranging from boosting international trade to fighting climate change. Yet, for China’s supreme leader, the top priority for the rest of the year is domestic politics: ensuring that enough members of his inchoate Xi Jinping Faction (XJPF) will be inducted into the Central Committee and the Politburo at the upcoming 19th Party Congress, which will endorse a wholesale reshuffle of top-level positions. Since late 2016 “core leader” Xi, who is also General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has been able to promote a large number of his protégés to strategic slots in the Party and government testifies to his tight grip on power (See China Brief, November 11, 2016). However, his acolytes rise—despite an apparent lack of laudable track records—has opened Xi to criticism for violating Party rules about thwarting factionalism and upholding meritocratic norms for cadre selection.

Two recent appointments demonstrate Xi’s use of personnel appointments to “stack the deck” with those loyal to him. The CCP Organization Department announced in May that Cai Qi (蔡奇; born 1953), who served under Xi in both Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, appointed to be the Party Secretary (PS) of the Beijing municipality. Cai’s rise has few precedents in Party history. From 2013, when Cai was Head of the Organization Department of Zhejiang Province, he has been promoted every year: firstly, Cai was made Executive Vice-Governor of Zhejiang, then Vice Director of the General Office of the Central National Security Commission (CNSC); then Executive Vice-Director of the General Office of the CNSC; then Acting Mayor of Beijing, Mayor of Beijing, and PS of Beijing. It took him just eight months to be elevated from acting mayor of Beijing to PS of the capital city. At the 19th Party Congress scheduled for this autumn, he is due to be inducted to the Politburo as an ordinary member. (The PSs of all four directly administered cities are usually Politburo members as well.) Cai, who is not even an alternate member of the Central Committee, will also be a rare example of a cadre getting into the Politburo without first becoming a member of the Central Committee (Radio Free Asia, May 29; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], May 28).

The other example of Xi’s proclivity for yongrenweiqin (用人为亲; “hiring officials based on favoritism”) is Beijing police chief Wang Xiaohong (1957), who has also leapfrogged up the bureaucratic ladder. Just four years ago, Wang was a Vice-Mayor of Xiamen in Fujian Province, the same post held by Xi from 1985 to 1987. Wang has been promoted five times since 2013. He went from Assistant Governor of Henan to Vice-Governor of Henan, to Vice-Mayor of Beijing and head of the Beijing Public Security Bureau (PSB) until his appointment last month as concurrently Vice-Minister at the Ministry of Public Affairs, Vice-Mayor of Beijing, and Head of the Beijing PSB. It is possible that Wang may become Minister of Public Security soon after the 19th Party Congress. Like Cai Qi, his party rank has failed to reflect his fast-growing role in the government. Wang is expected to become a Central Committee member of the Congress (MPS website, March 2; People’s Daily, March 30, 2015)

As Xi has reiterated, there are “careerists and conspirators” within the party who might form cliques that are prejudicial to the interest of the supreme leader. Xi has apparently attempted to insulate himself from these cliques by installing loyal cadres as Party Secretary of Beijing, as well as its police chief. At the same time and with extraordinary speed and efficiency has Xi has placed 20 members of his own faction in positions to join the Politburo at the 19th Party Congress or at least gaining significant advancement in Party and governmental ranks.

Within the upper echelons of the Party, the political fortunes of a number of Xi followers are set to rise considerably. All of them served under Xi when he was a regional administrator in Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai between 1985–2007, or when he was Head of the Central Committee Secretariat and President of the Central Party School from 2007–2012 (Yazhou Zhoukan [Hong Kong], May 7; Radio Free Asia, April 30; Ming Pao, January 9; RFI Chinese Service, October 23, 2016; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], October 23, 2016).

  • Huang Kunming (黄坤明, b. 1956), Executive Deputy Director of the Propaganda Department. Huang worked for Xi in Fujian and Zhejiang and is tipped to become Director of the Propaganda Department at the 19th Party Congress.
  • Chen Xi (陈希, b. 1953), Executive Deputy Director of the Organization Department who will likely be promoted Director of the same department at the congress. Chen was Xi’s classmate at Tsinghua University from 1975 to 1979.
  • Ding Xuexiang (丁薛祥; b. 1962), Executive Deputy Director of the General Office of the CCP Central Committee and Director of the Xi Jinping Office. Ding got to know Xi in 2012 when the former was Director of the General Office of the Shanghai Party Committee. Ding will likely succeed Xi protégé Li Zhanshu as Director of the Central Committee General Office.
  • Li Shulei (李书磊; b. 1964), who was named a Deputy Secretary of the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI) earlier this year. Li worked closely with Xi when the latter was President of the Central Party School from 2007 to 2012.

 While Xi has channeled economic and social policy-making to a number of central leading groups and central commissions at the apex of the CCP since 2013, the powers of the State Council or central government have correspondingly been truncated. Xi, not Premier Li Keqiang, runs the economy. While this goes against late patriarch Deng Xiaoping’s dictums about “separation of party and government,” Xi has taken steps to ensure that his close followers will occupy key positions within the government cabinet (United Daily News [Taipei], May 9; HK01.com, February 23; RFI Chinese Service, February 24; Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong] December 31, 2014). The following four cadres are tipped for promotion in the State Council: 

  • Liu He (刘鹤; b. 1952) a principal economic adviser to Xi in his capacity as Director of the General Office of the Central Leading Group for Finance and Economics (CLGFE), Liu may become a Vice-Premier in charge of Finance (as well as an ordinary Politburo member). The U.S.-educated Liu went to the same high school in Beijing as Xi. His power over economic policy-making is said to be even bigger than that of Premier Li.
  • He Lifeng (何立峰; b. 1955) was a close associate of Xi’s when the latter served in Fujian. He was named Deputy Minister at the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) in 2014 – and then Minister in 2017. Given that the NDRC is one of the most powerful units of the State Council, He Lifeng may at the Party Congress also become a Vice-Premier with the party rank of Politburo member.
  • Zhong Shan (钟山; b. 1955), Minister of Commerce. A former Vice-Governor of Zhejiang, Zhong also has experience as a state entrepreneur and trade negotiator.
  • Shu Guozeng (1956), a former Deputy Secretary-General of the Zhejiang Provincial Party Committee, is now Deputy Director of the General Office of LGFE. If Liu He earns a promotion at the Party Congress, Shu may take his place as Director of the General Office of the CLGFE, which is China’s highest-level decision-making body on financial and economic issues.

One of the key measures taken by ex-President Hu Jintao to bolster and consolidate the power of his Communist Youth League Faction (CYLF) was through appointing trusted CYLF affiliates to senior positions in the country’s 31 major administrative districts. Apparently taking a leaf from Hu’s playbook, Xi has named a considerable number of his protégés to positions of party secretaries or governors and mayors in the regions (Ming Pao, March 7; Reuters, March 2; China Times [Taipei], February 28; Radio Free Asia, February 27; HK01.com, September 28, 2016). Those with the most potential for elevation at the 19th Party Congress include: 

  • Chen Min’er (陈敏尔; b. 1960), Party Secretary of Guizhou (former vice-governor of Zhejiang). A trusted protégé of Xi’s, Chen has been speculated upon as a “shoo-in” for a position at the Politburo – and even a possible inductee to the Politburo Standing Committee.
  • Ying Yong (应勇; b. 1957), is Mayor of Shanghai and likely the next PS of the metropolis. Ying spent the bulk of his career in Zhejiang, where he gained the trust of Xi.
  • Li Hongzhong (李鸿忠; b. 1956), Party Secretary of Tianjin . The former PS of Hubei has never worked with Xi. However, Li has become a trusted aide because he has gone out of his way to promote Maoist-era veneration for core leader Xi.
  • Li Qiang (李强; b. 1959), Jiangsu Party Secretary (and former governor of Zhejiang). Throughout much of Xi’s tenure as Party Secretary of Zhejiang Province, Li served as Xi’s right-hand man in his capacity as Secretary-General of the Zhejiang Party Committee.
  • Gong Zheng (龚正; b. 1960), Governor of Shandong (former vice-governor of Zhejiang and party boss of Hangzhou).
  • Lou Yangsheng (楼阳生; b. 1959), Governor of Shanxi (former head of the United Front Department of the Zhejiang Party Committee)
  • Hu Heping (胡和平; b. 1962), Governor of Shaanxi (former Head of the Organization Department of the Zhejiang Party committee).
  • Chen Yixin (陈一新; b. 1959), a former member of the Standing Committee of the Zhejiang Party Committee and PS of Wenzhou, Chen was promoted Deputy Party Secretary of Hubei Province in 2016.
  • Liu Qi (刘奇; b. 1957), a former mayor of the Zhejiang city of Wenzhou and PS of Ningbo, Liu became Governor of Jiangxi Province in 2016.

“Core leader” Xi and his colleagues seem to have bent long-standing rules and conventions of the party so as to come up with cadre-promotion norms that favor members of the XJPF. Since 1949, the best-known criterion for promotion is that the candidate under consideration must be “both red and expert” (又红又专). After the Cultural Revolution, this has been changed to “having moral rectitude as well as ability and professional competence” (德才兼备). Moreover, the Hu Jintao administration (2002–2012) experimented with “public recommendation and public election” regarding the appointment of grassroots administrators. Candidates vying for a post must secure enough support—often in the forms of the casting of “votes”—from community leaders such as local members of the People’s Congress or Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). [1]

Particularly since Xi gained the status of “core leader” in late 2016, the most important criterion for promotion has become subservience to the will of the supreme leader. Thus, it was emphasized that cadres must “maintain a high level of unison in thoughts, politics, and action with the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as its core.” In addition, officials must have a “four-fold consciousness”: “political consciousness, consciousness about the overall national condition; consciousness about [obeying] the core [leader]; and consciousness about being in unison [with the core leader]” (People’s Daily, November 29, 2016; People’s Daily, April 5, 2016). Indeed, as early as 2014, the CCP Organization Department pointed out in a circular that seemed to put top priority on loyalty rather than solid achievements. “In deepening the reform of the system of selecting and promoting cadres as well as the system of assessment, we must solve the problem of picking officials ‘based solely on the number of votes [the candidates get in public appraisals], the number of [assessment] marks, the GDP [of jurisdictions under the control of the candidates] and the age [of candidates]’” (People’s Daily, September 2, 2014).

It is indicative of President Xi’s formidable sway that members of other factions who want to stay in power—or who look forward to promotions at the 19th Party Congress have gone to inordinate lengths in extolling the virtues and wisdom of the core leader. Take the case of two senior members of the Communist Youth League Faction, Premier Li and Guangdong PS and Politburo member Hu Chunhua. In his Government Work Report to the NPC last March, Li paid homage to “the party central leadership with Comrade Xi Jinping as its core” nine times. Hu (b. 1963) went even further in his address to the Guangdong Party Congress held last month. The rising star cited Xi’s name 26 times and praised Xi’s exemplary role as “core leader” seven times (South China Morning Post, June 3; Southcn.com, May 23).

If, as a senior cadre running the party organs of units directly under the party-state apparatus said, “the foremost political task is upholding the core status of General Secretary Xi Jinping,” the personality cult being built around Xi has dealt a big blow to not only the Party’s ingrained organizational principles but also the future of the country. Cadres who take the helicopter ride to the top merely due to the fealty they have professed the supreme leader do not have a track record of conceiving and implementing innovative and reformist policies.


Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department and the Program of Master’s in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including “Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New Challenges.”


  1.  For a discussion of the implications of the “public recommendation, public election” of local-level officials, see, for example, Kevin J. O’Brien and Suizheng Zhao, Grassroots Elections in China, Routledge, New York, 2011, pp. 196–197. Also see Kenneth G. Lieberthal, Cheng Li, and Yu Keping, China’s Political Development, New York, Brookings Institution Press, 2014, pp. 297–299.