Zhao Leji: the younger gun playing second fiddle to Xi Jinping
In the past five years, the party’s personnel chief has cemented his position through loyalty to the president
Zhao Leji is one of the new members of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee. Here we present a snapshot of his career:
As the Communist Party’s personnel chief, Zhao Leji’s big job has been to fill the vacancies left by a legion of cadres caught up in the president’s anti-corruption campaign.
Now he is filling a vacancy himself by taking up a seat at the top table of power in China, the Politburo Standing Committee.
At 60, Zhao is the youngest of the group of seven, giving him a good chance of staying in play when leadership line-up changes again in five years.
He is also one of the lower profile figures in the crackdown on graft, building a career in less-developed parts of the country and making a strength out of loyalty to President Xi Jinping.
Since 2012, Zhao has been the head of the party’s Organisation Department, a shadowy but powerful body that oversees top appointments in all state-run institutions, from ministries and state-owned companies to the media and public universities.
It is a job that has involved working closely with Wang Qishan, the country’s top graft-buster and a close ally of Xi.
While Wang has emerged as the public face of the anti-corruption campaign, Zhao is the one who brought Xi’s loyalists into important positions.
“Whenever Qishan makes a move, Zhao Leji gets busy,” party mouthpiece People’s Daily said in a 2014 report.
In Beijing in May, Zhao was on hand to announce the appointment of Xi associate Cai Qi as the capital’s new party boss. And in July after the fall of Chongqing party chief and former rising star Sun Zhengcai, Zhao made the trip to the megacity to introduce Sun’s replacement, Chen Miner, another close Xi ally.
New Zealand-based Chinese politics analyst Bo Zhiyue said that while Zhao may not have had ties to Xi in the past he had showed his loyalty by complying with Xi’s cadre appointments.
“There have been a lot of personnel changes due to the anti-graft campaign,” Bo said. “If Zhao were an aggressive person, we would see people with ties to him get promoted. We have seen no such trait.”
Over the past five years, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has snared about 1.4 million cadres, including more than 250 senior officials.
Among those netted was Wei Minzhou, one of Zhao’s former aides. Wei was regarded as Zhao’s right-hand man in Shaanxi province from 2007 to 2012, but was expelled from the party in August after being accused of taking bribes and engaging in superstitious activities.
But Zhao was not caught in Wei’s downfall, and continued to advance Xi’s agenda from the party’s human resources HQ.
In addition to passing on the chance to put his own friends in higher places, Zhao has pledged to commit expertise to poverty alleviation work, one of Xi’s national priorities.
He also urged his subordinates to extend the party’s reach in trading estates, office buildings and internet companies after Xi stressed the need for “party building” at the grass-roots level.
Analysts have said that Zhao’s obedience to Xi as well as his extensive experience in regional administrations helped the personnel chief rise to the top.
Born into an intellectual family in Xining, in the northwestern province of Qinghai, Zhao was “sent down” to the countryside as a 17-year-old before getting a job as an assistant in the government a year later.
In 1977, he was accepted to study philosophy at Peking University as one of the first batch of students admitted into the elite institution after the Cultural Revolution. After graduation in 1980, Zhao returned to Qinghai, ascending the political ladder from deputy section head to provincial chief.
When he was named Qinghai’s governor at the age of 42, he was the youngest person in the country to occupy such a position.
Four years later, he became the province’s party boss, again the youngest of his cohort.
But now that he has reached the apex of political power, the young gun is unlikely to play more than a supportive role during Xi’s second term.
“He has worked well with Xi and Xi’s people,” Bo said. “But we have seen no initiative of his own.”
Zhao’s younger brother Zhao Leqin, 57, is also a communist cadre. After Zhao was appointed Shaanxi party boss in 2007, the younger Zhao was transferred to the southern province of Guangxi to avoid working under his brother. Zhao Leqin is now the party chief of the tourist city of Guilin.