China’s Xi Jinping looks beyond old power bases as he nurtures new allies, expands talent pool

Senior positions filled by technocrats and those who’ve worked their way up from grass roots, as well as former aides

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 November, 2016, 7:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 December, 2016, 11:21am

The string of new faces recently appointed to senior Communist Party positions is evidence of party general secretary Xi Jinping’s desire to look beyond his power bases as he expands his talent pool and nurtures new allies, analysts say.

The appointees include senior aides of top graft-buster and close Xi ally Wang Qishan, technocrats, and others with no obvious factional allegiance who have worked their way up from local governments.

On the whole, there are not many people in Xi’s camp and their loyalty is also debatable
Zhang Lifan

While Xi has continued to place some trusted former aides in key positions – including those who worked with him during stints in Shanghai, Zhejiang or Fujian – analysts said the expansion of the talent pool underscored a “shift of power” within the party and new preferences when it came to promoting officials.

The party elite elevated Xi’s political status to “core” of the party leadership at a key meeting last month, giving Xi more influence in the quinquennial reshuffle of senior positions expected at the party congress late next year.

A handful of Xi’s former subordinates have taken on roles as party bosses or government leaders in Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangxi, Jiangsu, Hunan and Yunnan. All worked with the party chief and president during his stints in Shanghai, Zhejiang or Fujian as he ascended the political ladder.

Beijing-based political commentator Zhang Lifan said the fact that Xi did not have the chance to develop his own team when he became successor-in-waiting to party chief Hu Jintao in 2007 had limited his current choices.

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“On the whole, there are not many people in Xi’s camp and their loyalty is also debatable,” Zhang said, suggesting that lay behind his need to nurture technocrats and local officials not aligned with any political faction.

One such official is 60-year-old Wu Yingjie, who became Tibet’s party chief in August after rising from the bottom of the political ladder in the course of a 39-year career in the restive region. Born in Shandong, Wu moved to Tibet when he was just a year old.

Others appointed to senior positions are experts in fields such as aerospace technology and water management who appear politically neutral.

Former China National Space Administration director Xu Dazhe was parachuted into Hunan province in August as deputy party chief. Xu, 60, who until then had spent his entire 32-year career in the space agency, was appointed the province’s acting governor a month later.

Xu’s predecessor as head of the space agency, Ma Xingrui, was made party chief of Shenzhen in March last year. The 57-year-old, who was in charge of China’s lunar exploration programme, is tipped to become governor of Jilin province.

Water management expert Li Guoying, a 53-year-old former vice-minister and chief engineer at the Ministry of Water Resources, was appointed Anhui province’s deputy party chief last year. He was promoted to acting governor in September.

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Lu Xinshe, 60, who majored in water conservancy and served as a vice-minister of land and resources, was promoted from Jiangxi governor to provincial party chief in June.

Jiang Chaoliang, a former banker and central bank official who worked with Wang when he was vice-governor of Guangdong in the late 1990s, was promoted to Hubei provincial party chief in late October after a stint as governor of Jilin province.

Chen Daoyin, an associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said enlisting more technocrats with backgrounds in science and engineering also matched the Xi administration’s priorities in using China’s defence, aerospace and hi-tech sectors as spearheads as it tried to steer the country’s economy onto a more innovation-driven path.

Many high-fliers under Hu had been nurtured by the Communist Youth League, his power base, but Chen said Xi wanted to encourage local cadres to work their way up from the grass roots.

“Xi has reiterated the priority of tapping officials who have served in grass-roots and hardship areas,” Chen said. “[Promoting officials with these backgrounds] serves as an example and offers hope for others who are working at the grass roots.”

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He said promoting politically unaffiliated officials also helped show that Xi’s administration remained open to cadres from different backgrounds.

“[Xi] can place his trusted aides in key positions, but he cannot fill every post with his own men,” Chen said. “He may let some neutral or less important departments be run by officials who have little in the way of political faction affiliation. That would at least give an impression within the party that personnel policy remains inclusive.”

Xi also reached out to people close to Wang.

Wang’s former deputy at the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), Chen Wenqing, was made Minister of State Security this month, while two former members of the CCDI’s standing committee, Huang Xiaowei and Yao Zengke, were promoted to become deputy provincial party chiefs last month, Huang in Shanxi and Yao in Jiangxi.

Another former deputy of Wang’s at the CCDI, Huang Shuxian, was made Minister of Civil Affairs this month, but some commentators have questioned whether he was sidelined, because in his previous position he doubled as Minister of Supervision.

Chen Daoyin said that traditionally, the more powerful a party organ was, the more likely its officials were to be tapped for positions in other agencies.

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“The power of the CCDI has been strengthened after the anti-corruption campaign gained momentum,” he said. “So more discipline agency cadres are tapped for other departments and provinces.”

Zhang said Xi’s anti-graft campaign had hurt many political factions’ vested interests and his top priority was to guard against the formation of political cliques.

“He may find [technocrats and local officials] with no political affiliation more trustworthy,” Zhang said.