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Sun sets on era of collective leadership in China

The fall from grace of one of China’s brightest political stars was finally confirmed some five months after his rule over Chongqing had been called into question by the Central Discipline and Inspection Commission (CDIC).

Sun sets on era of collective leadership in China

By cutting Mr Sun Zhengcai out from his succession plans so close to the 19th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping appears to have killed all hopes that an heir-apparent will emerge in the upcoming leadership transition. Photo: Reuters

The fall from grace of one of China’s brightest political stars was finally confirmed some five months after his rule over Chongqing had been called into question by the Central Discipline and Inspection Commission (CDIC).

In a terse statement on Monday, state news agency Xinhua formally announced that Sun Zhengcai, former party secretary of the municipality, had been placed under investigation for “serious violations” of party regulations.

By cutting Mr Sun out from his succession plans so close to the 19th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping appears to have killed all hopes that an heir-apparent will emerge in the upcoming leadership transition.

Mr Sun’s sudden dismissal by the regime he had once been favoured to lead is startling.

Along with Guangdong party chief Hu Chunhua, Mr Sun is the only other Politburo member born in the 1960s. Given their seniority and age, the two had been seen as potential candidates to succeed Mr Xi come the 20th Party Congress in 2022.

Mr Sun’s political star had been on the rise following the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) last party congress in November 2012, when the former Jilin party chief gained a place among the party’s Politburo elites. He was widely expected to ascend to the Politburo’s supreme Standing Committee later this year. But Mr Sun’s fall from grace has surely put an end to his political career.

The first sign of Mr Sun’s troubles came in February, when the CDIC, the CCP’s anti-corruption watchdog, censured him for not purging Chongqing of the “pernicious legacy” of his predecessor, Bo Xilai, who is now serving a life sentence for corruption and abuse of power.

Still, before he was replaced by Mr Chen Min’er two Saturdays ago, Mr Sun had widely been considered a shoo-in for re-election as a Politburo member.

While it is premature to ascertain the motives behind Mr Sun’s removal, it is likely that his indiscretions are of a political nature.

Indeed, rumours in the Chinese cyber sphere have since associated him with other “big tigers” (ie other senior CCP leaders who have been brought down on corruption charges).

These include allegations of his wife’s connections with the spouse of Ling Jihua, the deposed political aide to China’s former president, as well as speculation that one of Mr Sun’s police chiefs in Chongqing is linked to the disgraced former security czar, Zhou Yongkang.

Prior to his troubles, Mr Sun had been viewed favourably by the administrations under Mr Jiang Zemin and Mr Hu Jintao, and even appeared to have edged out Mr Hu Chunhua due to the latter’s obvious Communist Youth League background.

Unlike Mr Hu Chunhua, it was believed that Mr Sun could thus draw from a wider base of support.

Although Mr Sun is perceived as a protege of former premier Wen Jiabao, it would be remiss to overlook that China’s former agriculture minister had, for many years, worked under Beijing’s former party secretary (and Jiang loyalist), Mr Liu Qi.

Between 2003 and 2007, Mr Sun and Mr Liu also crossed paths with Mr Wang Qishan — the hatchet man in President Xi’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign.

During the Sars outbreak, Mr Wang was parachuted into the capital to assist Mr Liu in dealing with the pandemic.

As some overseas Chinese media outlets would have us believe, Mr Liu — concerned that his deputy would undercut his influence — therefore attempted to undermine Mr Wang during that time. If there had indeed been any skullduggery, one can reasonably imagine that Mr Sun — as a key aide to Mr Liu — could inadvertently have become embroiled in the rivalry.

Mr Sun’s patron-client relationship with Mr Liu is certainly palpable. As recently as December 2015, China’s state media carried reports of Mr Sun accompanying his former boss when Mr Liu was visiting Chongqing.

Mr Sun’s close links to Mr Liu could well have led to his own undoing, as both mentor and mentee now appear to be in trouble.

According to knowledgeable sources in Beijing, following the indictment of Lu Xiwen — another of Mr Liu’s acolytes — in January last year, Mr Liu himself has been ensnared in the anti-graft net on charges of corruption since November.

Similar to Bo Xilai — as well as Chen Xitong in 1995 and Chen Liangyu in 2006 — Mr Sun’s removal follows the pattern of Politburo elites being deposed while they were still in power.

On the other hand, when contrasted with the party’s protracted efforts under Mr Hu Jintao in ousting Bo, the relative ease with which Mr Sun appears to have been dispatched offers proof of President Xi’s mastery over the trifecta of party-state-military power as the CCP’s “core” leader.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, membership of the Politburo and its Standing Committee at the 19th Party Congress will be finalised sooner rather than later, and can be expected to be filled by Mr Xi’s key associates and followers of his ally Wang Qishan.

Clearly, Mr Xi understands how installing an heir-apparent in his second term risks the possibility of his own power base being chiselled away.

While he may put off his decision for now, he certainly appears to have taken charge of his own succession planning. Apart from the need to identify a next in line who will adhere to his “China Dream”, demonstrating the ability to anoint his own successor — unlike Mr Jiang and Mr Hu — will also mark him out as a truly consequential leader, in the manner of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

By rejecting Mr Sun — a candidate not of his own choosing — Mr Xi may have given the clearest indication yet that he will extend his rule beyond a second term.

Following this latest development, the era of collective leadership in China’s domestic politics also appears to have come to an end.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

James Char is an associate research fellow with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

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