Chongqing, a Slippery Stepping Stone

The CPC Central Committee has appointed Sun Zhengcai to fill Bo Xilai’s former position as Chongqing’s Party chief, following interim secretary Zhang Dejiang’s appointment to the Politburo Standing Committee last week.

Sun, 49, was elected as a member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee after the 18th CPC National Congress last week. Born in Shandong Province, he served as Minister of [agri]Culture for three years before being transferred to Northeast China in 2009 as secretary of the CPC Jilin Provincial Committee.

Zhang Dejiang, vice premier and former member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, covered Bo’s position from March as secretary of the CPC Chongqing Municipal Committee, after Bo’s wife Bogu Kailai was found to have been involved in the murder of British citizen Neil Heywood.

[…] According to media reports, Zhang had been trying to differ from Bo’s tenure by redirecting Chongqing’s economic and social development in a low-profile manner. Bo’s red song campaign was also discontinued. Zhang urged Party officials to draw lessons from the Bo scandal, take better care of their spouses, children and staff and ensure they are held to the highest standards.

With the transition to a new generation of leadership still underway, Sun’s assignment will prepare and test him for an anticipated key role in the next. From Brian Spegele at The Wall Street Journal:

The appointment of Mr. Sun, a former agriculture minister and party chief of northeast Jilin province, is an early indication that rising party leaders will be given reins of some of the country’s most important—and most problematic—areas, analysts say. In Chongqing, for example, Mr. Sun will face deeply vested business interests, continuing concerns over organized crime and still-strong support for the ousted Mr. Bo.

The appointment—and a number of others that are expected to follow in the coming days and weeks—points to a major shuffling at the top ranks of China’s ruling party following last week’s Communist Party Congress, where Xi Jinping succeeded President Hu Jintao as party chief. That shuffle will provide important insight into a generation of rising cadres—known as the sixth generation, following the Xi-led fifth generation—who are expected to lead the party when Mr. Xi and other newly appointed leaders likely retire a decade from now.

The outlook of the new generation could be significantly different from the previous. Unlike Mr. Xi’s generation, which came of age during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Sun and his contemporaries grew up during the period of relative openness following economic reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1978.

Cheng Li’s biographical entry on Sun at The Brookings Institution highlights his PhD, a year spent studying in the U.K., and a “humble” family background, another difference between him and princelings like Bo and Xi.

[…] There have been different explanations for the quick rise of Sun Zhengcai and his relationships with senior leaders. Some believe that Sun has been Jia Qinglin’s protégé, as he advanced his career largely in Beijing, where Jia served as mayor and party secretary from 1996 through 2002. It also has been speculated that Sun is a protégé of Wen Jiabao, who played a direct role in Sun’s promotion to minister of agriculture and then party secretary of Jilin Province. Both explanations, however, may be correct.

Modest background is shared by Hu Chunhua, or “Little Hu”. Both men have just received seats on the “outer” Politburo, are relatively young at 49, and are strongly tipped for future leadership. From Cheng Li at Brookings:

Hu Chunhua established his patron-mentor relationship with Hu Jintao in Tibet when the latter served as party secretary there (1988–1992). Hu Chunhua has been widely regarded as “a carbon copy of Hu Jintao” [to whom he is not related]. Both come from humble family backgrounds, both were student leaders in their college years, both advanced their political careers primarily through the CCYL, both worked in arduous work environments such as Tibet, both served as provincial party secretaries at a relatively young age, and both have low-profile personalities. Hu Chunhua’s parents were farmers in a poor village and he has six siblings. Hu got married in Tibet and the couple have one daughter.

Hu the Younger’s current role is as Party secretary for Inner Mongolia: see ‘Little Hu and the Mining of the Grasslands‘ on CDT. He is now widely expected to take over as Guangdong Party head, though it was rumoured last month that he was also a contender for the Chongqing position. Both he and Sun may then rise to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2017, when five of the seven current members are due to retire. Last week, Bloomberg traced their likely trajectories.

If the two do assume top leadership posts 10 years from now, their advancement within the party’s top echelons may follow the path of Hu Jintao, whose grooming began when he was named to the Politburo’s Standing Committee at age 49 in 1992, said Bo Zhiyue, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asia Institute who has written a research paper on Hu Chunhua and Sun.

By contrast, Xi Jinping, who was named Communist Party general secretary […], and Li Keqiang, who is forecast to take over from Premier Wen Jiabao in March, were elevated into the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007 without serving in the broader Politburo. Communist Party leaders may have decided the next generation will need more time to prepare, Bo said.

“I think this time around they are doing a better job of bringing younger people into the Politburo so they can start this grooming process,” Bo said in a phone interview. “In the case of Hu Jintao it was 10 years, but in the case of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang it was only five years. In Chinese politics five years seems a little bit rushed.”

Nothing about future leadership transitions can be taken for granted, however, as the current Party secretary in Guangdong and Sun’s predecessor in Chongqing might attest.