China’s 20th Party Congress
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Xi Jinping ally Li Xi has been appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee and will head the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Photo: Getty Images

Seat at the top table caps Guangdong party chief Li Xi’s journey across China

  • Li takes over as head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection after being promoted to the new Politburo Standing Committee
  • It is the latest step in a career has sent him to some of the country’s biggest economic hubs as well as centres with a special place in Communist Party history
Li Xi, Guangdong’s Communist Party chief, has taken over as the party’s anti-corruption chief after being named among the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee.

Li, who appeared alongside President Xi Jinping on Sunday when the new leadership team was unveiled, will rank as No 7 in the hierarchy.

Li, 66, is originally from the landlocked northwestern province of Gansu, and has administrative experience across the nation, including the country’s main financial centre Shanghai, the northeastern rust-belt province of Liaoning, and the southern economic powerhouse of Guangdong.
Since 1992, four of the five Guangdong party chiefs have landed a place on the Standing Committee. The only exception is Hu Chunhua, Li’s immediate predecessor and a vice-premier. Hu, who lost his seat in the Politburo on Sunday, is set to step down as vice-premier in the coming March government reshuffle.

Li took over as Guangdong’s party chief in 2017 and has overseen the Greater Bay Area plan, which aims to integrate Hong Kong and Macau more closely with nine cities in the southern province.

In the early stages of Hong Kong’s anti-government protests in 2019, he warned officials to be alert to the risk and, without directly referring to the city, told them to guard the country’s “southern gate”.

Many observers credit Li with minimising the economic disruption Covid-19 controls have caused in the province and avoiding large-scale lockdowns while still adhering to the country’s zero-Covid goals.

In July last year, Li, who was facing a small upsurge in cases at home, was the only member of the then 25-strong Politburo to miss the party’s 100th anniversary celebrations in Beijing.

Li is known for his stern manner, but is not shy about taking credit for himself. In March, during a discussion held at the annual meeting of the legislature, Li took pride in his province “steadily handling” the impact of the trade war with the United States and mitigating various risks.

Despite not having obvious connections with Xi Jinping, Li is regarded as one of his strongest loyalists.

One connection is that Li previously served as party chief in Yanan, an area of Shaanxi that was a base for Mao Zedong in the 1930s and 40s.

It also includes Liangjiahe, the village where Xi worked as a labourer during the Cultural Revolution.

In 2007, Xi, Shanghai’s party chief at the time, was sent a letter by Li on behalf of the villagers. The future president’s reply – that his time there had influenced his politics and that he had “left his heart” in Liangjiahe – has been regularly quoted by state media since then.

What Xi Jinping’s shortened congress work report did not mention

Li was born in the northwestern Gansu county of Liangdang, where Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, led a revolt that started his career.

In 2013, Li returned to his hometown to commemorate the centenary of the birth of the elder Xi and rubbed shoulders with the president’s family, including his younger brother Xi Yuanping.

At the age of 20, Li began working for the local party office before earning his degree in Chinese studies from what would later become Northwest Normal University. After graduating in 1982, Li began working for the provincial propaganda department in Gansu.

After rising through the Gansu hierarchy, Li was transferred to the neighbouring province of Shaanxi in 2004 where he served on the provincial party committee.

Li graduated with an MBA from Xi’s alma mater Tsinghua University in 2011, moving to Shanghai where he led the city’s municipal organisation department.

Two years later, he was appointed Shanghai’s deputy party secretary before moving on to Liaoning in 2014, where he served as governor. He then became the province’s party chief in 2015 before taking on the same role in Guangdong in 2017.