Contender for China’s leadership under investigation

Contender for China’s leadership under investigation
Within five days of publicly vowing absolute loyalty to Mr Xi and extolling his “superlative political wisdom,” Mr Sun was dismissed and put under investigation and has since disappeared, his career terminated by the man he had praised. Reuters file photo
Published: 6:25 PM, July 16, 2017
Updated: 10:14 AM, July 17, 2017

BEIJING — A senior Chinese official who was considered a contender for top leadership has been put under investigation, sources with ties to the leadership said, ahead of a Communist Party congress in the autumn where President Xi Jinping is expected to cement his grip on power.

Mr Sun Zhengcai had been party chief of the southwestern megalopolis of Chongqing, until an abrupt announcement on Saturday morning that he no longer had the position and had been replaced by a rising political star close to Mr Xi.

The announcement, carried by state news agency Xinhua, did not say Mr Sun either had a new position or use wording to suggest he was waiting for a further appointment.

A source who has been briefed on the matter said Mr Sun is suspected of “serious discipline violations”, a term that can encompass everything from taking bribes to not toeing the party line. The source added that it was a “conversation investigation”, meaning it’s not yet at the stage of a formal probe.

A second source with ties to the leadership told Reuters that Mr Sun is undergoing investigation for suspected “violation of political discipline”. “But he is still a comrade. He is still a Politburo member,” the source said, referring to the party’s 25-member decision-making body.

Officials are stripped of their title “comrade” once a formal legal case is filed against them and they are expelled from the party. 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.

The Communist Party’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment on Sunday (July 16). Calls to the Chongqing government information office also went unanswered.

Mr Sun did not appear on Chongqing television’s Saturday evening broadcast when new party boss Chen Min’er, was introduced to city officials by Mr Zhao Leji, head of the powerful organisation department which oversees personnel decisions.

Mr Chen worked with Mr Xi in the eastern province of Zhejiang, where Mr Xi was party chief from 2002 to 2007. His new post is likely to assure him promotion to the Politburo.

When Beijing’s new party boss Cai Qi was unveiled in May, Mr Zhao not only introduced Mr Cai but his predecessor Guo Jinlong was also present at the meeting and gave a speech, according to the Beijing city government’s account of the event.

A third source with ties to the leadership emphasised how unusual it was that Mr Sun was not present or mentioned at all in the meeting where Mr Chen was presented as new Chongqing leader.

The source said officials were told that Mr Sun had committed “political mistakes”.

The three sources, who all spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to speak to foreign media, said Mr Sun was currently in Beijing.

“Sun’s absence from the transition ceremony was highly unusual and is a good indication that he’s in trouble,” said Mr Willy Lam, an adjunct political professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

His removal could help the President solidify his grip on power ahead of the party reshuffle, Prof Lam said. “It’s another way to demonstrate he’s in full control of the succession game.”

Chongqing is perhaps best known for its association with its disgraced former party boss Bo Xilai, once himself a contender for top leadership before being jailed for life in 2013 in a dramatic corruption scandal.

Mr Sun had been seen as a potential candidate for elevation at the autumn congress. Party insiders and analysts saw him as a strong contender for promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s top decision-making body, or even as a possible successor to Mr Xi.

Mr Sun is one of two current Politburo members who are in their 50s, making them young enough to be considered candidates for helming China’s next generation of leaders after Mr Xi. The other is Mr Hu Chunhua, party chief of the affluent southeastern province of Guangdong.

He had previously drawn praise from the president. During a visit to Chongqing in January 2016, Mr Xi stood side by side with Mr Sun and admired various projects under his purview, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

But his star has waned.

Sources with ties to the leadership and foreign diplomats say he has been out of favour after the party’s anti-corruption watchdog in February criticised Chongqing authorities for not doing enough to root out Bo’s influence.

At that meeting, Mr Sun said he accepted the watchdog’s assessment “without question”, according to a party statement at the time.

Chongqing is one of China’s most important cities. Global electronics brands including Hewlett-Packard, Foxconn, Acer and Asus all have operations in Chongqing, lured by tax breaks, cheap labour and land, plus a developed supply chain and logistics. The region makes a third of the world’s laptops.

Two years ago, Singapore and China launched a government-to-government project, known as the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative. The project looks at how to boost Chongqing’s connectivity and support development in Western China. AGENCIES