The rise and rise of Xi Jinping’s new man in Beijing

Cai Qi has rocketed up the Communist Party ranks in the past four years to become the capital’s boss

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 May, 2017, 12:27am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 May, 2017, 10:26pm

Beijing’s new Communist Party boss is not afraid to be different.

Unlike most officials, Cai Qi (蔡奇) does not dye his hair to look younger. He’s also a fan of the US TV show House of Cards and is on the record as an avid user of Apple’s iPhone and iPad.

In addition to personal style, Cai, 60, has political substance. He has rocketed up party ranks in the last four years, rising from a modest official position in Zhejiang province to take the top municipal job in the capital in a promotion that all but guarantees him a spot on the top 25-member Politburo at the party congress later this year.

Much of that success is due to one considerable factor – Cai is a long-time protégé of President Xi Jinping and spent a decade at his side in Fujian and then Zhejiang province.

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However, he has also shown an ability to stake his own claim on big issues.

Cai was born in Fujian and worked in the province for 19 years before becoming the mayor of the small city of Sanming in 1996. He was reassigned to Zhejiang in 1999 and spent the next 15 years working his way up to the job of deputy provincial governor.

But Cai’s career really took off in 2014, when he was promoted to general office deputy director at the National Security Commission, a body founded and chaired by Xi.

A year later, Cai was promoted to ministerial rank, and a year after that, was named Beijing’s mayor. Over the weekend he went one step higher to be named Beijing’s party secretary.

His rapid rise has caused hard feelings among other officials, according to one political source.

“Quite a number of cadres, including some at the ministerial level, are not convinced by Cai’s quick promotion,” the source said. “They don’t think Cai has what it takes.”

That’s because even the country’s most senior cadres had to spend at least five years at the rank of minister before taking a further step up the career ladder.

Beijing-based political commentator Zhang Lifan said Cai’s promotion suggested the top leaders were now less inclined to value seniority.

“Beijing does not see experience as so important now. A lot of cadres with no impressive experience are being promoted,” Zhang said.

Nevertheless, Cai has made a name for himself with his commitment to less-opaque governance and his willingness to embrace new ideas.

Cai’s interest in more open government surfaced when he was mayor of Hangzhou in the late 2000s and reportedly invited residents to sit in on municipal meetings.

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His open-mindedness is reflected in his interest in the internet – before he moved to Beijing, he was an active microblogger and had more than 10 million followers on his social media account.

Part of his popularity was due to his audacity to confront topics rarely broached by cadres, especially junior ones.

During Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s visit to China in 2011, Cai said on his page that it was “a shame” that Facebook could not be accessed in China because it was the best social media Silicon Valley had to offer.

The same year, Cai touched on the collapse of the Berlin Wall, asensitive topic for the communist regime. Cai wrote of the conviction of Ingo Heinrich, a former East German guard who followed orders to shoot and kill a young man who tried to flee across the wall into the West in 1989.

Heinrich was found guilty of manslaughter in 1992 and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. Other wall guards who aimed low to wound instead of kill were acquitted.

Cai concluded that everyone needed to guard the “one centimetre of sovereignty” in their conscience, suggesting that the guard should have shot to miss.

As a local official, Cai was ahead of the curve on internet issues that are high up on Beijing’s agenda now but were of scant interest to senior officials when he raised them. He’s also been willing to take a hard line.

In an interview in June 2012, five months before Xi became general secretary, Cai pushed for the country to enact a cybersecurity law even though the topic was outside the scope of his official title.

“The key technologies are still in the hands of the West, so we have to develop our own software,” he said. “And we need to make laws on cybersecurity as soon as possible.”

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Cybersecurity turned out to be among Xi’s top concerns two years later, when Xi founded a leading group on the topic and chaired the group himself.

In the 2012 interview, Cai also called for the party to stake its claim to the battlefield of the internet to take firmer control of the country, a controversial idea rarely brought up at the time but became highly popular after Xi became the general secretary later that year.

“The battle for the internet is a war without smoke,” he said. “The party has to see the internet as a battlefield if it wants to consolidate its power.”