The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection confirmed on Monday that Sun Zhengcai, the former Party Secretary of Chongqing, is under investigation for serious disciplinary violations. Once considered a top contender as President Xi Jinping's successor, Sun was abruptly dismissed from his post on July 15th and replaced by Xi's ally and rising political star Chen Min'er. Michael Martina at Reuters reports:
The former Communist Party boss of one of China's most important cities, the southwestern megalopolis of Chongqing, is under investigation for "suspected serious violations of discipline", the party's anti-corruption watchdog said on Monday.
[...] The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) announced the investigation into Sun in a one-line statement on its website, a move that comes ahead of a key party congress in the autumn where Xi will cement his grip on power.
Sources had earlier told Reuters that Sun was under investigation for discipline violations, a term that can encompass everything from taking bribes to not toeing the party line.
Officials are sometimes put under investigation but not formally charged. However, once a party announcement about a probe is publicly announced, they are almost always punished. [Source]
Coming just months ahead of the critical 19th Party Congress, the announcement of Sun's downfall foreshadows a turbulent leadership reshuffle later this autumn when twenty-five members of the Politburo and five members of the Politburo Standing Committee are scheduled to be replaced. Although the party did not specify the exact allegations against Sun, there are speculations that he is being purged for graft as part of Xi's ongoing anti-corruption campaign, which some see as a maneuver orchestrated by Xi to take down political rivals and promote loyalists to top leadership positions. From The New York Times' Chris Buckley:
[...By] removing Mr. Sun, Mr. Xi has eliminated a potential obstacle to his efforts to consolidate power later this year, when a Communist Party congress will appoint a new leadership team to serve under him for his second five-year stint as party leader and as president.
[...] The removal of Mr. Sun allowed Mr. Xi to place an acolyte, Chen Miner, in charge of Chongqing. The official investigation against Mr. Sun opens the way for his eventual expulsion from the Politburo and replacement by Mr. Chen, who worked closely under Mr. Xi when they were both officials in the eastern province of Zhejiang.
After the investigation was announced, the Chongqing Communist Party leadership under Mr. Chen praised the decision as “very timely and very correct,” and said it demonstrated Mr. Xi’s strong leadership, the Chongqing news media reported. In a hint of the accusations Mr. Sun may face, the Chongqing leadership also said the decision showed that the “struggle against corruption” would never stop.
[...] The announcement on Monday did not say whether Mr. Sun would be expelled from the Politburo. But that appears to be a formality once the official party inquiry ends. If investigators find grounds for criminal charges, they may also hand Mr. Sun over to prosecutors for investigation and prosecution. [Source]
In May, Xi Jinping appointed Cai Qi as the party secretary of Beijing in an effort to cement his control over the capital.
While politically motivated corruption probes are not uncommon, the current purges taking place under Xi Jinping differ from earlier expulsions in that the established rules of succession may themselves be at stake. Chris Buckley at The New York Times reports in a separate article:
The sudden fall from grace was taken as a warning that Mr. Xi will play succession politics by his own ruthless rules.
“Sun Zhengcai was a sacrificial object to send a message across the party,” said Wu Qiang, a current affairs writer and former political science lecturerat Tsinghua University in Beijing. “Xi Jinping has signaled that he doesn’t feel bound by the order of promotion set by the previous generation of leaders.”
[...] Mr. Sun’s removal appears to undermine the pecking order of elite promotion that had been taking root under Mr. Xi’s predecessors, especially Hu Jintao, the previous president. Mr. Sun’s promotion was never fail-safe, but under the hierarchy created at Mr. Hu’s retirement, he had appeared poised for elevation this year.
“If Sun Zhengcai is not promoted and in fact being brought down, being purged,” said Susan L. Shirk, the chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, “that really is an indication that the unwritten rules, or norms, of leadership succession are not being followed.” [Source]
One person who figures prominently in Xi's succession politics is Wang Qishan, the head of the party's anticorruption and discipline commission. Although Wang has already reached the age for mandatory retirement, some party insiders believe that Xi wants to extend Wang's time in office and expand his role in the economic sphere, perhaps even promoting him as China's next premier. An author at The Economist looks at why explosive allegations against Wang by exiled businessman Guo Wengui do not appear to have dulled Wang's political prospects:
[...D]isquiet about Mr Xi’s grip has turned the unlikely figure of Guo Wengui, a Chinese billionaire who lives in exile in New York, into a person of political significance. In a series of tweets that are eagerly discussed in China (and indignantly dismissed by the state-run media), Mr Guo has thrown explosive and unproven accusations against the family of Mr Xi’s closest ally, Wang Qishan, who is leading an anti-corruption campaign. Mr Guo, who also called Mr Sun “a genius among geniuses” (perhaps hastening his fate), has his supporters. Police recently arrested two people in the aviation industry who allegedly provided Mr Guo with information from Hainan Airlines about well-connected passengers. The carrier is owned by HNA, a conglomerate at the centre of Mr Guo’s claims about Mr Wang’s family. HNA is suing Mr Guo for defamation.
Mr Guo’s assertions do not seem to have damaged Mr Wang. On July 17th a long article by Mr Wang in the party’s flagship newspaper, People’s Daily, denounced “insufficient efforts to strictly enforce party discipline.” It does not sound as if his authority is weakening, though whether he will stay in office after a five-yearly party congress due this autumn is another matter. According to the party’s unwritten rules he should retire (he is 69).
The bigger question is how long Mr Xi will stay on. By convention, he should step down as general secretary in 2022. His likely successor would be expected to emerge at the party congress. Getting rid of Mr Sun doubtless makes it easier for Mr Xi to pick whomever he chooses. But his power is now so great that it is getting harder to imagine anyone else in charge. Odds are growing that he will try to keep his job after 2022, or appoint a placeman and rule China from behind the scenes. He would hardly be the first leader to do that. [Source]
Meanwhile, at South China Morning Post, Jun Mai reports that five senior cadres from the Communist Youth League have not received invitations to attend the 19th Party Congress, an anomaly within an otherwise highly scripted process that suggests the possible downfall of the officials in question.
The five jilted cadres are all from the Communist Youth League and born before 1971, and were once seen as rising political stars. One of them, Qin Yizhi, is chief of the youth league and a full member of the Central Committee, and the other four are alternate members.
Besides being at grave risk of losing their seats in the Central Committee, the uninvited will be also be excluded from casting a vote for new candidates for the committee.
[...] “As we know, Xi Jinping has really gone after the Communist Youth League over the past year, trying to decimate the patronage networks there,” [Shambaugh] said. “This would be consistent with the past year’s actions.”
The youth league, the power base of former president Hu Jintao, has been overhauled since the fall of Hu’s former chief of staff, Ling Jihua. [Source]