Guangdong and Chongqing ( 重慶 ) were the mainland’s beacons of economic growth last year, bucking the trend of the nationwide slowdown. The strong performances by China’s biggest provincial economy Guangdong, led by party secretary Hu Chunhua, and its largest municipality, under Sun Zhengcai, came at a critical time as Beijing struggles to arrest a deepening slowdown in the national economy. Diverging local economic performances not only test Beijing’s ability to coordinate policies to revive the national economy, but also influence the political jockeying ahead of the next Communist Party leadership reshuffle in less than two years. The central government has set a growth target of 6.5 per cent to 7 per cent for 2016 – the first time it has targeted a range since 1995. Growth slowed to 6.9 per cent last year, the lowest in a quarter of a century. READ MORE: Why stalled reforms are a bigger worry for China’s economy than a hard landing Guangdong, with an economy larger than that of Indonesia or Turkey, grew 8 per cent last year, accelerating from 7.8 per cent in 2014, while Chongqing, on the upper reaches of the Yangtze, achieved 11 per cent, the highest of the 31 provinces, regions and major cities on the mainland. Another rich province putting in a top performance was coastal Zhejiang ( 浙江 ), under party boss Xia Baolong and governor Li Qiang. Zhejiang, where President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) served as party secretary from 2002 to 2007, sped its gross domestic product by 0.4 percentage points to 8 per cent. This was the biggest gain of any province. Economic performance has long been a key factor influencing local officials’ political careers, although the central leadership has pledged to reduce its significance. “It looks like economic growth is still a very important criteria on [cadres’] resumes if they want to be promoted,” said Louis Kuijs, head of Asia economics at Oxford Economics in Hong Kong. As such, it was worth watching “rapidly growing provinces” for clues as to the future political landscape, said Kuijs, who has worked as a senior economist at the World Bank’s China office. Hu, the party secretary of Guangdong, and Sun, the party secretary of Chongqing, both born in 1963, are the youngest in the 25-member Politburo and are widely seen as front runners for the next central leadership. The 19th Party Congress in 2017 will decide China’s leaders for the following five years. While Xi, Li Keqiang ( 李克強 ) and other top leaders are expected to be reappointed, rising stars will have the chance to climb up the ranks. Complicating the process however, is that in considering any such promotions, Xi will also have to consider the reforms being pushed by the Communist Party – including those that hurt vested interests in the political establishment. READ MORE: Opportunities as well as costs as China’s economy adjusts Of the mainland’s 31 provinces, only six increased economic growth in 2015. Heilongjiang ( 黑龍江 ) under its 49-year-old governor Lu Hao, reported 5.7 per cent GDP growth last year, a slight improvement from 2014’s 5.6 per cent but lower than the national average. Hebei ( 河北 ), the province surrounding Beijing that is under heavy pressure to shut polluting factories, managed to accelerate growth to 6.8 per cent. Tibet ( 西藏 ), the smallest provincial economy – about one 70th the size of Guangdong’s – reported a modest uptick. Of the 25 provinces reporting slower headline growth, Liaoning ( 遼寧 ) in northeastern China reported the lowest of all at 3 per cent, down from 5.8 per cent in 2014. Shanxi ( 山西 ), heavily reliant on coal mining, reported 3.1 per cent, down from 4.9 per cent. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I were told some Chinese provinces were actually in recession,” said Tao Dong, the chief economist for Asia excluding Japan at Credit Suisse in Hong Kong. Regional imbalances and divergences in China’s economic landscape were likely to deepen, Tao said. Economic planners in Beijing face a greater challenge to coordinate growth, many analysts believe. The government should follow a “Swedish approach” in which it left markets to function – such as by allowing loss-making state steel plants to go bust – while also doing as much as possible to create new jobs for those displaced workers, Kuijs said.