The unveiling of the new leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Regional Committee on 25 October marked the start of provincial leadership shake-ups across the party. This is the highlight event of the Chinese political arena before the 20th Party Congress takes place next year.
As of end November, 13 provincial committees — including Xinjiang, Henan, Shanxi, Anhui, Jiangxi, Jiangsu, Guangxi, Hunan, Fujian, Hebei, Tibet, Yunnan, and Inner Mongolia — have completed their leadership transitions.
Provincial standing committees generally consist of 11 to 13 members. In the political structure of the CPC’s hierarchical management, these senior cadres are responsible for the development of various provinces and are directly accountable to the central committee. The CPC’s leadership over the country is also achieved through provincial leaders.
The leadership changes of provincial standing committees will be completed before next summer. As per the usual practice, before the party congress of various provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities, the new top leaders of the party and government (party secretary, governor) in each of the provinces would be put in place first. This year, over 20 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities have welcomed their new top leaders, marking the most intensive year of provincial leadership shake-ups since the 19th Party Congress.
Post-50s generation exiting political scene
Looking at the backgrounds of the new batch of provincial leaders, making their ranks of cadres more revolutionary, younger, better educated and more competent professionally — standards formed since reform and opening up — is still a party priority in leader selection. At the same time, the shades of factionalism commonly seen in past leadership shake-ups have reduced significantly.
The leading force among local officials are those born in the 1960s (post-60s generation). Based on Zaobao’s calculations, the average age of China’s current top provincial leaders has dropped to around 61 years old. Excluding local officials who are also Politburo members, there are currently less than ten top provincial officials born in the 1950s, reflecting the fact that the post-50s generation is slowly fading out of the political arena.
Based on the standard retirement age for ministerial-level officials, apart from a few 65-year-old local officials who are set to be promoted, most of them will retire before the 20th Party Congress next year. This implies that the average age of the new batch of top provincial officials will be further lowered.
The average age of provincial-level chief administrators (governors, mayors) is even lower now, at 58 years old. Among the 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities, only Guangdong governor Ma Xingrui and Ningxia chairwoman Xian Hui were born in the 1950s. The youngest is 54-year-old Zhao Long, the previous Xiamen party secretary who was promoted to Fujian deputy governor and acting governor just this October.
Mainstream factions that have received attention in the past are non-existent on paper, and many newly elected provincial officials are no longer distinguishable by faction.
Factionalism toned down
Prior to the 18th Party Congress in 2012, the two mainstream factions most frequently mentioned by senior CPC cadres were the “second-generation reds” (红二代, children of first generation CPC leaders) and the Communist Youth League (共青团).
Over the past few years, the CPC has often emphasised the “Two Upholds” — upholding Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the CPC Central Committee and in the party as a whole, and upholding the Central Committee’s authority and its centralised, unified leadership — and the “Four Consciousnesses” — consciousness of the ideology, the whole, the core, and the line — to achieve “one position as the highest authority” (定于一尊). Mainstream factions that have received attention in the past are non-existent on paper, and many newly elected provincial officials are no longer distinguishable by faction.
Peking University political studies academic Yang Zhaohui told Zaobao that under the current Chinese political landscape, if officials are “unable to hold to the ‘Two Upholds’ and fail to establish the ‘Four Consciousnesses’, that would be the end of their political career.”
More officials with professional qualifications
Among the current local officials, while those who are products of the party and government system are still in the majority, the crop is widening — senior executives from state-owned enterprises, finance, aerospace, medicine and other fields have entered the political arena to become local officials. China’s power structure has evolved from factional dominance to the coexistence of talents from diverse backgrounds.
Additionally, a group of highly educated expert-type officials are also gaining prominence in recent years. For example, Shandong party secretary Li Ganjie and Beijing mayor Chen Jining have both obtained their master’s degrees from Tsinghua University. Chen even furthered his studies overseas and obtained his PhD degree from Imperial College London.
Among the other highly educated officials with experience studying abroad are Hainan party secretary Shen Xiaoming and Fujian party secretary Yin Li. Shen is a paediatrician and had previously conducted postdoctoral research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Yin is a public health expert who obtained his PhD degree from the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences. He was also a visiting scholar at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
A group of local officials have also emerged from the military and aerospace fields. These include Liaoning party secretary Zhang Guoqing, Hunan party secretary Zhang Qingwei, Zhejiang party secretary Yuan Jiajun, Guangdong governor Ma Xingrui, Sichuan governor Huang Qiang, and so on.
Analysts think that having more expert-type officials enter politics not only helps reduce the bureaucratic tone of the cadre team and broadens their horizon, but also reduces factionalism in the political arena.
For many years, the criteria for senior cadres entering the Politburo include experience, political performance, personal connections, age and even gender.
Top picks for entrance into the Politburo
Local officials promoted to their current positions before the 20th Party Congress will enter the next CPC Central Committee. Some among them will also enter the 25-member Politburo Standing Committee, the CPC’s top decision-making body.
Over the years, the CPC follows this unspoken rule: when selecting the new Politburo, those aged 67 and below will remain in their positions or get promoted, while those aged 68 and above will retire. If this tradition is maintained, 11 Politburo members are due to retire next year.
For many years, the criteria for senior cadres entering the Politburo include experience, political performance, personal connections, age and even gender. Provincial officials who can enter the Politburo are generally those who have served in a relatively important ministerial-level position for at least five years, or those who have served in more than two ministerial-level positions, such as in the post of a minister, a provincial party secretary, and so on.
Analysts think that, while the new batch of provincial officials come from diverse backgrounds, it is still crucial for them to have strong connections within the party if they want to enter the Politburo, as this would affect their ability to gain the trust of the higher-ups.
Senior cadre Ying Yong a hot favourite
Among the current group of local officials, the hot favourite is Hubei party secretary Ying Yong.
Born in Zhejiang, Ying once worked under Chinese President Xi Jinping in Zhejiang and became Shanghai mayor prior to the 19th Party Congress. Last February, he was deployed to Hubei, the epicentre of the Covid-19 coronavirus, at a critical and difficult moment to salvage the situation. He eventually turned the situation around.
Also born in 1957 like Ying, former Jiangxi party secretary Liu Qi and former Yunnan party secretary Ruan Chengfa both took a back seat recently, but Ying remained in his position in Hubei. Analysts are almost certain that Ying will enter the Politburo following the 20th Party Congress.
Another possible candidate is Henan party secretary Lou Yangsheng. He had also worked under Xi in Zhejiang, and had governed Shanxi and Henan. This May, he was transferred to Henan to become party secretary from his previous appointment as Shanxi party secretary. While this is not considered a promotion, it is considered a stepping stone as he moves on to his next important appointment.
Zhang Qingwei, who has been working in the local political arena for many years, possesses the experience needed for promotion as well. Born in 1961, Zhang has been a member of the CPC’s Central Committee for four terms, since he became Hebei deputy secretary in 2011, then Hebei governor, and later Heilongjiang party secretary in 2017, to his most recent appointment as Hunan party secretary in October this year. Having been the top provincial official two times, Zhang has theoretically fulfilled the criteria to enter the Politburo.
‘Old’ party secretary Shi Taifeng exception in retaining office
Apart from Politburo members who are also in charge of local areas, currently the oldest local senior official is Inner Mongolia party secretary Shi Taifeng.
Generally, provincial party secretaries are not nominated for a new term once they hit 65. But during the leadership change for Inner Mongolia last month, 65-year-old Shi retained his place as the top official for Inner Mongolia, meaning he will be in office at least until after the 20th Party Congress.
Shi served under three presidents of the Central Party School (CPS): Hu Jintao, Zeng Qinghong, and Xi Jinping. His subsequent postings included being head of the Organisation Department of the Jiangsu party organisation, Jiangsu deputy party secretary, and Suzhou party secretary. In 2016, he was promoted to chief at a provincial level, as Jiangsu governor.
In 2017, Shi was appointed to the top position in Ningxia as party secretary; two years later, he became Inner Mongolia party secretary. While in charge of Inner Mongolia, he launched a probe into 20 years’ worth of corruption in the coal industry, with outstanding results in anti-corruption efforts. The fact that he was put in charge of the leadership change of the provincial committee shows that he remains trusted.
Besides being promoted into the Politburo, Shi may also be appointed to the National People's Congress or Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference at the 20th Party Congress, and move to a second-tier city as a deputy at the state level.
The top leaders in Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Chongqing, Guangdong, and Xinjiang are all currently Politburo members. Those who have been in administrative leadership positions in these political “highlands” — except for Xinjiang — all have a chance of continuing to rise to the Politburo, such as Beijing mayor Chen Jining.
Apart from local senior officials, some senior cadres of the central ministries and agencies may also join the Politburo during the 20th Party Congress. One prominent candidate is Chen Yixin, secretary-general of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission.
Chen, 62, was an alternate member for the 19th CPC Central Committee. He was previously deputy secretary-general of the CPC Provincial Committee for Zhejiang Province, head of the Policy Research Office, assisting then Zhejiang party secretary Xi Jinping. Since 2018, Chen has been in charge of China’s anti-corruption campaign as well as the education and reorganisation of the political and law enforcement teams. In February 2020, as the deputy head of the central government’s directing group on Hubei in charge of dealing with the epidemic in the province, he went to Wuhan in Hubei, where the pandemic was most severe, to guide the pandemic efforts there.
Potential female candidate for Politburo
Since the 15th Party Congress in 1997, it has been standard practice for the Politburo to include at least one female; the only female member at present, Sun Chunlan, turns 72 next year.
Peking University political studies academic Yang Zhaohui said the next senior female cadre to make it into the Politburo will probably be selected from among the current local senior officials. Female officials in central ministries and agencies who are chiefs at the ministerial level are also potential candidates.
Currently, the one who looks to have the best chance is Guizhou party secretary Shen Yiqin, a member of the 19th Central Committee and currently the only female party secretary at a provincial level.
However, Shen’s career has not gone beyond Guizhou, and this lack of breadth in her CV might be a limitation. Yang says: “If officials do not have broad experience, that will affect their promotions. But it has become a regular thing for the Politburo to include one female; it is also to keep up appearances.”
In the 13 provinces that have recently had a leadership change, there are 26 post-70s generation standing committee members, of which 19 are new faces.
Post-70s provincial standing committee members stand out
In the current changes to the provincial-level standing committee members, some post-70s generation officials have stood out as new blood and rising stars among provincial level leaders.
In the 13 provinces that have recently had a leadership change, there are 26 post-70s generation standing committee members, of which 19 are new faces.
Ren Wei, born in May 1976, is the youngest provincial-level standing committee member. Last year, he was appointed vice-chairman of the People's Government of the Tibet Autonomous Region, and on 30 November 2021, during the change in leadership for Tibet, he was promoted to a provincial-level standing committee member.
Another post-75 generation candidate is Xinjiang standing committee member Ilzat Exmetjan, born June 1975. He previously worked in state-owned enterprises, and held positions such as general manager of China Foreign Economy and Trade Trust and a vice-president of COFCO Group.
This Uighur official is a new face who popped up just before the change of committee members for Xinjiang. Given Xinjiang’s sensitive politics, Exmetjan’s appointment is politically significant. His rise is probably because his political stand is firm and he has a good understanding of Beijing’s policies towards Xinjiang.
Newly promoted Anhui standing committee member Zhang Hongwen, 46, is also of the post-75 generation, a top-level tech talent.
Zhang graduated from the School of Astronautics at Beihang University (previously the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics), where he studied missile and carrier rocket design. He worked at the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, and led China’s cruise missile development and major R&D projects.
In 2014, Zhang won the Tech Innovator of the Year award at the CCTV Science & Technology Award Ceremony, alongside figures like the “father of hybrid rice” Yuan Longping, and Chinese Academy of Engineering academician Li Lanjuan. In 2019, Zhang was parachuted to Anhui as deputy governor. A promotion to a provincial level standing committee would pave the way for him to gain experience.
Bright future for Liu Jie with move to Zhejiang
Currently, among the post-70s generation who are in provincial level standing committees, two of them made it in before the 19th Party Congress in 2017.
Liu Jie, 51, current Zhejiang party standing committee member and Hangzhou party secretary, was made a member of the Jiangxi party standing committee and general secretary of the provincial party committee, the youngest provincial-level standing committee member at the time. In 2018, he moved to Guizhou as standing committee member and general secretary of the provincial party committee; in July 2020, he was appointed to head the Organisation Department of the CPC Provincial Committee.
This month, Liu went to Hangzhou to take on his new position as the top leader in the major economic province of Zhejiang, where his future looks bright.
Another one from the post-70s generation with an impressive CV is Shanghai party secretary Zhuge Yujie, also aged 51. Like Liu, he also became a provincial standing committee member before the 19th Party Congress, in his case, for Shanghai.
Being the party secretary for Shanghai is a post with much potential for promotion. Zhuge’s two predecessors were Ding Xuexiang and Yin Hong; the former joined the Politburo at the 19th Party Congress and became director of the General Office of the CPC, while the latter was appointed as the top leader in Gansu, becoming its governor early this year.
Zhejiang and Shanghai have not yet implemented changes to their provincial standing committees, but if all goes well, Liu and Zhuge will join the Central Committee at the 20th Party Congress.
Looking at the recent signals from the top, the CPC is in no hurry to inject more new blood into the provincial level standing committees. Compared to age, the political loyalty of the cadres trumps everything.
Three post-70s female cadres promoted to provincial standing committees
In the provinces that have seen leadership changes, three senior female cadres from the post-70s generation have caught the eye: Guangxi provincial standing committee member and Guangxi vice-chairman Cai Lixin; Hunan provincial standing committee member and Xiangtan party secretary Zhang Yingchun; and Fujian provincial standing committee member and Fujian vice-governor Guo Ningning.
And while there is a group of officials from the post-70s generation who have come up, there has not been a significant increase in the number of officials aged 45 to 50 among the leaders in the provinces that have seen a leadership change.
So far, each province has at least one — mostly two — post-70s standing committee members, showing an accelerated rise of the post-70s generation among the provincial leaders, which is a normal transition.
Looking at the recent signals from the top, the CPC is in no hurry to inject more new blood into the provincial level standing committees. Compared to age, the political loyalty of the cadres trumps everything. These post-70s officials are just entering their career progression, and how after they go depends on whether they stand up to scrutiny from the top, and their political achievements.
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