The great reshuffle: How China is changing up its provincial leaders ahead of the 20th Party Congress in 2022

Even though the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China will only be held in 2022, already there have been changes made this year to the top leaders of several provinces in China. More are expected in the coming months, with hot seats in Jiangsu, Shandong, and Henan — the three major provinces with larger economies and population size — closely watched. Zaobao correspondent Yang Danxu looks at the implications of this exercise in bringing in new blood.
People are seen in silhouette on a street on a winter day in Beijing, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, China, 21 December 2020. (Tingshu Wang/REUTERS)
People are seen in silhouette on a street on a winter day in Beijing, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, China, 21 December 2020. (Tingshu Wang/REUTERS)

With less than two years to go until the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) holds the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (henceforth 20th Party Congress), China’s various provinces, cities, and autonomous regions are ramping up the pace of bringing in new blood. Figures show that nearly 60% of provinces have changed their party secretaries or main government officials, and it is expected that at least seven provinces will replace their party secretaries next year, including those with large economies and populations such as Jiangsu, Shandong, and Henan.

As is standard practice in China’s political arena, in most provinces, the local officials who are to take China beyond the 20th Party Congress in the second half of 2022 will be installed by the end of next year or the first half of 2022.

changes
(Image: Jace Yip)

Recently, in the space of barely two weeks from the second half of November to early December, there were changes in the party secretaries in six provinces — Jilin, Hunan, Guizhou, Yunnan, Fujian, and Hainan. Apart from former Sichuan governor Yin Li taking over in Fujian, the other five party secretary positions were filled by former governors of the respective provinces, meaning that Jilin, Hunan, Guizhou, Yunnan, Hainan, and Sichuan also saw new governors.

yin li
Yin Li will take over as Fujian party secretary. (CNS)

Year with most changes following 19th Party Congress

Also, former Heilongjiang governor Wang Wentao and former Gansu governor Tang Renjian were posted to Beijing in early December as party secretaries at the Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs respectively, and it will probably not be long before they assume top posts at these two ministries. Wang’s successor has not yet been announced, while Tang’s position will be filled by former Jiangsu deputy party secretary Ren Zhenhe, who was appointed acting Gansu governor early this month.

Looking at the extent and methods of changes to local officials this year, local officials who are of a certain age next year — probably 65 — will likely be moved to second-string positions, and will not get to serve for too long.

By Lianhe Zaobao’s count, following this round of reshuffle, there were changes made to 27 top local positions this year in China’s provinces, the most since the 19th Party Congress in 2017.

So far, apart from a few government officials in autonomous regions for minorities, there are no senior officials in the provinces above the retirement age of 65. Among the top local government officials in various provinces, only Jiangxi governor Yi Lianhong and Guangdong governor Ma Xingrui were born in 1959; the others are “’60s babies”.

65
(Image: Jace Yip)

Looking at the extent and methods of changes to local officials this year, local officials who are of a certain age next year — probably 65 — will likely be moved to second-string positions, and will not get to serve for too long.

Of the party secretary changes effected in ten provinces, most were due to the incumbents reaching the retirement age of 65. But there were two exceptions. In late February, former Shanghai mayor Ying Yong took over Jiang Chaoliang’s position as Hubei party secretary as the latter was removed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Jiang was also the only provincial chief to be removed this year for his poor work performance. On the other hand, former Shaanxi party secretary Hu Heping took over as Minister of Culture and Tourism, while former Shaanxi governor Liu Guozhong took over Hu’s role to become Shaanxi party chief in July.

guizhou
This photo taken on 7 November 2020 shows people in traditional costume attending an annual "Chixin" festival ceremony in celebration of this year's harvest in Danzhai County, in southwest China's Guizhou Province. Guizhou is one of the provinces that has seen a leadership change. (STR/AFP)

According to Zaobao’s analysis, 12 top-level local officials would reach the age of 65 next year. Four of them — Beijing party secretary Cai Qi, Tianjin party secretary Li Hongzhong, Guangdong party secretary Li Xi, and Xinjiang Autonomous Region party secretary Chen Quanguo — are members of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and hold the rank of sub-national leaders, just a step after the national leaders. Thus, they are not bound by the retirement age of 65 and are expected to only have their positions adjusted around the time of the 20th Party Congress in 2022.

Seven provincial party secretaries expected to step down next year

The eight other top-level local officials who would reach the age of 65 next year are: Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region party secretary Shi Taifeng, Jiangsu party secretary Lou Qinjian, Shandong party secretary Liu Jiayi, Henan party secretary Wang Guosheng, Hunan party secretary Xu Dazhe, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region party secretary Lu Xinshe, Tibet Autonomous Region party secretary Wu Yingjie, and Gansu party secretary Lin Duo.

... while it is common practice for party secretaries to be replaced by governors, we must not rule out the possibility of external transfers, especially in the case of important or sensitive provinces.

Apart from Xu, who was just promoted to Hunan party secretary last month at the age of 64, it is highly likely that the remaining seven officials would step down next year, bringing about another round of provincial-level personnel appointments and adjustments.

Xu Dazhe. (Internet)
Hunan party secretary Xu Dazhe. (Internet)

Based on the recent reshuffle of local officials, while it is common practice for party secretaries to be replaced by governors, we must not rule out the possibility of external transfers, especially in provinces deemed important or sensitive. When appointing new provincial party secretaries, higher-ups must discuss, deliberate, and reach a unanimous decision to ensure that all parties will be satisfied with the final choice.

Of the anticipated reshuffle in the seven provinces mentioned above, changes in Jiangsu, Shandong, and Henan — the three major provinces with larger economies and population size — will be most closely watched.

others
(Image: Jace Yip)

Currently, 56-year-old Jiangsu governor Wu Zhenglong has an age advantage. He has been in Jiangsu’s leadership team for over four years and has accumulated a certain amount of experience there. However, he does not have a particularly impressive background. He served in Chongqing for several years and was a member of the standing committee of the CPC Chongqing Municipal Committee from May 2007 to September 2014. During his stint in Chongqing, he assisted numerous Chongqing party secretaries such as Wang Yang, Bo Xilai, Sun Zhengcai and so on. He was appointed member of the standing committee of the CPC Shanxi Provincial Committee and party secretary of Taiyuan in 2014, took over as Jiangsu deputy secretary and Nanjing party secretary in 2016, and became Jiangsu governor in July 2017 and has remained in this position until the present.

Generally speaking, the highest-level officials in the local governments of China’s five ethnic minority autonomous regions are chosen from the respective local officials, while the secretary of its party committee is externally transferred.

Also aged at 56, Li Ganjie was appointed as Shandong governor in April after his stint as Minister of Ecology and Environment. In Chinese officialdom, getting transferred to helm a local government after a stint at a central ministry strengthens one’s official career and portfolio. It is thus more likely that up-and-coming Li would succeed Liu as Shandong party secretary.

Yin Hong. (Internet)
Henan governor Yin Hong. (Internet)

It is also highly likely that Henan governor Yin Hong would succeed Wang Guosheng as Henan party secretary. Yin went north to Henan late last year and officially became governor of Henan this January. Born in 1963, Yin served for a long time in Shanghai, a traditional stomping ground of China’s political upper echelons. Before he was transferred to Henan, he was deputy party secretary of Shanghai. In 2001, he was part of Shanghai’s third batch of cadre aid mission members to Tibet, acting as the leader of its liaison team, and had served as deputy party secretary of Shigatse for three years, which gives him experience in assisting Tibet. 

Additionally, as Tibet is located at China’s southwestern border and has long been plagued by sensitive issues such as ethnicity and religion, many are keen to know who the next Tibet Autonomous Region party secretary after Wu Yingjie would be. Generally speaking, the highest-level officials in the local governments of China’s five ethnic minority autonomous regions are chosen from the respective local officials, while the secretary of its party committee is externally transferred.

Ying Yong may soar to greater heights

Around the time of the 20th Party Congress in 2022, Jiangxi party secretary Liu Qi, Hubei party secretary Ying Yong, Sichuan party secretary Peng Qinghua, Yunnan party secretary Ruan Chengfa, and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region party secretary Chen Run’er would also turn 65. It is generally believed that apart from a few special circumstances, such as Ying, who became Hubei party secretary at the height of the pandemic, and may soar to greater heights at the 20th Party Congress, the remaining people would retire as expected.

Ying Yong. (Internet)
Hubei party secretary Ying Yong. (Internet)

The flurry of changes in local official appointments demonstrates that the CPC is accelerating its personnel restructuring in time for the 20th Party Congress, which is expected to commence in the later half of 2022. This implies that, from next autumn, the party committees of various provinces, cities and autonomous regions will enter into "reshuffle mode”, conducting local party congresses to elect the new generation of leaders in the party committees. Prior to this, the top officials of various provinces, cities and autonomous regions, that is the party secretaries, would have already been appointed. They would preside over the change of leadership of provincial-level party committee leaders, a process that could still be ongoing even after the 20th Party Congress.  

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