BEIJING – The fall from grace of a rising star in China’s Communist Party sheds light on how a reshuffle of the country’s top officials may play out under the leadership of President Xi Jinping later this year.
Sun Zhengcai, 53, the youngest member of the ruling Politburo, was replaced Saturday as party chief of the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing. He is under investigation for violating party regulations, according to four officials with knowledge of the matter.
The officials said they attended a municipal meeting in Chongqing on Sunday, where they were told by a senior local party member that Sun severely damaged the party’s interests. The officials, who asked not to be identified because the discussions were private, said they were urged to eliminate Sun’s influence and were told that senior local officials committed serious mistakes under Sun’s guidance. The officials said they were also exhorted to follow the instructions of the central leadership and President Xi’s teachings.
Sun’s downfall underscores Xi’s dominance ahead of a party congress that will set the tone for his second five-year term as president, analysts said. Sun’s age and rank had positioned him to advance to the Politburo’s smaller, supreme Standing Committee at the upcoming party congress. That could have set up him for a top leadership post after 2022.
The ousting of another former Chongqing chief, Bo Xilai, jolted the last party shuffle in 2012. Bo, who was touted at the time as a potential future leader, is now serving a life sentence in prison for graft and abuse of power.
“Chongqing has uncannily returned to the center of the political drama five years later, although Sun’s clout cannot beat Bo’s back then,” said Zhang Jian, an associate political science professor at Peking University. Sun’s removal suggests maneuvering before the leadership changes and points to the president being “in full control of the political situation,” Zhang said.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday that Sun was being probed.
The 19th Party Congress is expected to be held in the final quarter of the year and will mark the halfway point for Xi’s presumed term in power. Based on recent retirement conventions, he and Premier Li Keqiang are the only ones on the seven member Standing Committee expected to stay on.
The president has been amassing power ahead of the reshuffle. Xi was given the status of “core leader” at a party conclave last October, a significant semantic change in China’s elite politics, which has for more than three decades stressed collective leadership.
And he’s undertaken a sweeping crackdown on graft in the party. China’s top graft buster Wang Qishan said in an article published Monday by the party’s People’s Daily newspaper that officials had handled 1.6 million corruption tips from the public since the campaign started in 2012. Xi reads the inspection reports and gives detailed comments when problems are found, Wang said.
The push against graft could give Xi the opportunity to fill the party’s top positions with allies. Sun was replaced by his longtime associate Chen Miner, 56, who was party chief of the southwestern province of Guizhou.
The shakeup in Chongqing comes before an annual meeting of party elites in the seaside resort of Beidaihe — expected to be held in early August — which will review key decisions ahead of the party congress.
There were months of warning signs about Sun before the weekend’s events. The party’s top anti-graft agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, issued a statement in February after an inspection trip to Chongqing saying the municipality fell short of “clearing toxic residue” from Bo’s era.
In June, state media said Chongqing’s top police officer, He Ting, had been relieved of his post. At the appointment meeting on Saturday, Sun’s work for the past five years in Chongqing didn’t get a single mention.
Sun’s downfall could put the spotlight on Guangdong provincial party secretary Hu Chunhua, the other Politburo member born in the 1960s. Hu is a protege of former President Hu Jintao and dubbed “Little Hu.” During an inspection tour to Guangdong in April, Xi “fully affirmed” the province’s performance over the past five years.
“The 18th Party Congress approved Sun Zhengcai and Hu Chunhua for the Politburo, and both were viewed as possible successors to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang,” said Joseph Fewsmith, a professor at Boston University who studies China’s elite politics. “So now, part of the decision of the 18th Party Congress has been overturned. We’ll see if the other part is,” he said.
The removal of Sun could open the way for Chen to take a seat on the 25-member Politburo. Chen was Xi’s propaganda chief during his tenure in the southeastern Zhejiang province between 2002 and 2007. Chongqing’s party chiefs have been represented on the Politburo since 2007.
“Chen worked closely with Xi before and has shown unfaltering political loyalty — the most important credential for promotion under Xi’s leadership,” said Zhao Suisheng, director of the Center for China-U.S. Cooperation at the University of Denver.
Chen and Chongqing mayor Zhang Guoqing visited several retired senior city officials on July 16, the Chongqing Daily reported. The officials firmly supported Beijing’s decision to change the local leadership, the paper said. It cited Chen as saying Xi was paying close attention to the party’s work in Chongqing and had high hopes for the city’s development.
Still, Xi has shown a tendency to break party norms — including by putting top current and former officials under investigation — which adds an element of uncertainty to the party congress.
“All signs are pointing to the direction that Xi is planning for a third term” after his 10 years are up in 2022, said Zhao. “Succession is being planned according to Xi’s plan, not some arrangements made five years ago by his predecessor. That has already become ancient history.”
By Ting Shi and Keith Zhai