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Sun Zhengcai was once seen as a high flyer in the Chinese Communist Party. He and one other were marked out in 2012 as likely successors to President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang in 2022, when a handover to a successor generation is supposed to take place.
As a step in that direction, Sun was widely expected to be elevated to the (currently) seven-member Politburo Standing Committee at the Party Congress at the end of this year.
However, on 24 July the official news agency Xinhua announced that Sun was being investigated by the Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection (CCDI), which is likely to confine Sun to prison.
On 15 July it was announced that Sun had suddenly been replaced as Party Secretary of Chongqing by Xi ally and political rising star Chen Min’er.
Sun was also criticised in the party’s Chongqing Daily for not following the instructions of ‘core’ leader Xi.
It may also be that the absence of Wang Qishan, head of the CCDI, from public appearances was because he was preparing the ground for Sun’s investigation. Wang has in the past been absent before a major ‘tiger’ has been taken down. However, he surfaced in Guizhou, the province where Chen was Party Secretary.
Why Isn’t Sun Shining Anymore?
Back in 2012 at the start of his reign and before he could fully establish his power, Xi had two likely successors, Sun and Hu Chunhua (now Party Secretary of Guangdong province), when the pair were elevated to the Politburo.
Sun is rumoured to have been the protégé of Jiang Zemin, who ruled China from 1989 to 2002, and his lieutenant, Zeng Qinghong. However, Sun is now exposed because, unlike his predecessors, Xi has few restraints on his power.
He does not have a powerful Deng Xiaoping (who loomed over Jiang for much of the latter’s rule), just as Jiang himself had done the same for Hu Jintao after he relinquished power in 2002.
Politics is a vicious, all-or-nothing power game in China; it has always been part of the party’s DNA.
For all the talk of ‘institutionalisation’ – a concept whose roots are only a few Party Congresses deep – reaching the top and staying there can often be a bare knuckle fight.
Xi is ruthless at this game: he wishes to ensure that he chooses his successors so that he can preserve his legacy and possibly his skin, for he has made many enemies through his war on corruption. Politics is a vicious, all-or-nothing power game in China; it has always been part of the party’s DNA.
More broadly, with personnel decisions being horse-traded and to be decided at the annual get-together in Beidaihe of the top party cadres in August, Xi is letting opponents know that he will have his way at the Party Congress in the autumn.
For several years he has been promoting his allies within both the civilian and military systems. Provincial party secretaries and governors, plus ministers and certain generals are ex officio, full – that is, voting – members of the Central Committee.
This means a higher turnover than at earlier congresses and a Central Committee made up of a clear majority of Xi supporters.
What Else Does Sun’s Fall suggest?
So what of Hu Chunhua’s future? Might he also go, since he too was foisted upon Xi? It is possible. However, taking down both Sun and Hu would destroy any pretence that their fall was a matter of corruption rather than power politics. So he might survive.
Hu has of late been pursuing with vigour Xi’s and Wang’s signature policies of war on corruption, enforcement of party discipline and poverty alleviation; and he praised Xi and his policies extravagantly at the Guangdong party congress in May.
A powerful Xi is likely to want one of his own supporters rather than Hu as his successor
That may prevent him becoming yet another ‘tiger’ skin trophy on Wang’s wall, but a powerful Xi is likely to want one of his own supporters rather than Hu as his successor; so Hu may well not be promoted at the forthcoming congress.
Sun’s fall re-emphasises that Xi is undoubtedly both strong and a risk-taker. In the 20 years before he became General Secretary, only two Politburo members were hauled before the courts for trial. Xi will have managed three, if Sun faces the same fate as Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai.
Politics of Fear
However, adopting Caligula’s philosophy of ‘oderint, dum metuant’ (‘let them hate as long as they fear [me]’) will be creating enemies, and remains a risky business. But Xi will also have made friends of those who are promoted in his enemies’ places and among their supporters.
Whether Xi will see the need to protect himself and his own allies by staying on for a third term in 2022 is almost certainly something he has no need to decide at the moment.
In China, the general population will pay little attention: politics is for the Party and most assume that officials, including the top ones, are corrupt
For Xi has five more years in which to build power, to ensure his target of building ‘a moderately prosperous society’ is met and, most importantly, to put into place a leadership in his image and in his defence.
In China, the general population will pay little attention: politics is for the Party and most assume that officials, including the top ones, are corrupt. The more than 89 million Party members will have to study documents about Sun’s crimes.
Yet it remains a moot point whether the CCDI action will promote trust in a cleaner system or just more cynicism. Indeed, many may conclude that independent thought and innovation which diverge from Xi orthodoxy constitute a risk too far; inaction might be a safer survival strategy. Speeding up reform after the congress may require more than just Caligula’s hate and fear.
Charles Parton worked as a diplomat in both the British and EU services, spending much of his career in China. Since retirement, he has set up his own consultancy, China Ink, as well as being London Director of China Policy and Special Adviser on China to the House of Commons Select Committee. He is shortly to return to Beijing as Internal Political Adviser to the British Embassy.
Banner image: The National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Seating arrangements are a good indicator of who is in and who is out. Courtesy of Wikimedia.