Chinese Provincial Reshuffling about Elite Politics & Xi’s Power, Not Anti-corruption Campaign

By Will Johnson —

Source: Thespeakernews' flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Source: Speaker resources’ flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

There have been two major reshuffles of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) provincial secretaries since General Secretary Xi Jinping took power. The first occurred from late 2012 through March 2013. The second began in mid-2015 and wrapped up in recent months. It may be easy to assume that the leadership changes must have been caused by Xi’s well-documented anti-corruption campaign, but that would be naïve and simplistic. These appointments are all part of elite political dynamics, though those dynamics were different during each reshuffle.

The first reshuffle occurred just as Xi was coming to power, and the appointments were shaped by the views not only of Xi, but of other senior leaders. New provincial secretaries were appointed in many economically and strategically vital provinces, such as Fujian, Guangdong, and Zhejiang, plus the key provincial-level municipalities  of Chongqing and Tianjin. One cannot say that all of these newly installed officials were Xi allies, but neither are they obvious political opponents.

The more recent second reshuffle does appear to be more of a case of Xi appointing his allies. New appointments in Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as other more remote provinces, expanded Xi’s reach. More importantly, however, he promoted several former protégés to provincial party secretary positions. Thinking ahead to his second term, Xi presumably placed these allies in positions to be considered for seats on the next Politburo and possibly the Politburo Standing Committee. Among these potential candidates are Chen Min’er and Bayanqolu, both of whom served with Xi in Zhejiang.

There are many other similar cases, and Xi will no doubt continue to promote protégés from his past and other allies to seats of power. Just last week, Xi tapped Cai Qi, a longtime colleague from his Fujian days, to become mayor of Beijing. It is possible that Cai will ascend to party chief of Beijing at next year’s Party Congress. Appointing allies to provincial party positions has and will continue to solidify Xi’s “core” status, which was recently established at the Sixth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee. The CCP only reserved such nomenclature for Jiang Zemin, Deng Xiaoping, and Mao Zedong in the past.

While the widespread anti-corruption campaign has not been absent from the highest rungs of the provincial leadership ranks, its presence there has been rather muted. During the 2012-2013 leadership shakeup, Su Rong in Jiangxi province was the only outgoing party secretary to be investigated for corruption, and he was not even charged until after leaving office. This episode was the sole case directly tied to the anti-corruption campaign out of 19 new provincial party chief appointments during that span.

In the 2015-2016 reshuffle, there were only three such cases out of 17 new appointments. This includes the outgoing Zhou Benshun, Wang Min, and Huang Xingguo, party bosses of Hebei, Liaoning, and Tianjin, respectively. Thus, of the 36 provincial party chief appointments since Xi Jinping took power, only four (11 percent) were directly connected to the anti-corruption campaign. That represents a miniscule fraction of the 1 million officials the CCP claims to have disciplined for corruption since the campaign began.

Despite that the CCP’s inner workings are constantly shrouded in mystery, the provincial secretary appointments occurring in the last four years are indeed not a byproduct of the anti-corruption campaign, but can rather be attributed to Xi Jinping’s unremitting drive to consolidate power and maintain his influence for years to come.

Mr. Will Johnson is a research intern with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS.

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2 comments for “Chinese Provincial Reshuffling about Elite Politics & Xi’s Power, Not Anti-corruption Campaign

  1. Greg Johnson Md
    November 15, 2016 at 21:33

    Power accumulation trumps cleaning the Chinese governmental swamp- no pun intended.

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