March 10, 2017 2:02 pm JST

Chinese regional chiefs jockey for influence at congress

President's longtime allies stress competence while less-favored profess loyalty

YUSHO CHO, Nikkei staff writer

Guards patrol outside the Great Hall of the People during the National People's Congress. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

BEIJING -- The new faces among China's top regional officials expected to support President Xi Jinping during this fall's leadership reshuffle spent time in the spotlight at the ongoing annual meeting of the country's legislature, competing to win the "core" leader's favor.

Referring to a visit by Xi late last month to the site of a new airport under construction in Beijing, Mayor Cai Qi explained Monday that his own role is to "build the capital of our great socialist motherland."

Cai, who just officially took the post in January, served under Xi during the president's days as a regional leader in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. Yet he did not exalt Xi as China's "core" leader during the Monday news conference. Instead, he simply discussed challenges his city faces, such as building infrastructure and combating air pollution.

A news conference Tuesday by Li Qiang, Communist Party Secretary of Jiangsu Province, went along similar lines. Li mentioned early on that he has visited more than 60 areas in the province over his eight months in the position. Li, who worked for many years in neighboring Zhejiang Province, emphasized his efforts to integrate into his new environs.

Li served as party secretary-general of Zhejiang Province during Xi's term as provincial secretary. He looked relaxed throughout a meeting of deputies from Jiangsu Province, smiling as he chatted with other attendees.

Ying Yong, named mayor of Shanghai in January, also worked under Xi in Zhejiang Province. He, too, stayed away from the word "core," sticking to calm discussion of practical issues such as the Shanghai free trade zone and public transportation.

Xi's status as "core" leader of the party was approved by the legislature -- the National People's Congress -- confirming a centralized power structure that is affecting how some regional chiefs speak. Li Hongzhong, appointed party secretary of Tianjin in September, began his remarks at Tuesday's meeting of the city's congressional deputies with a boilerplate reference to "the party leadership with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core."

A relatively neutral figure in Communist Party politics, Li Hongzhong was closest to former President Jiang Zemin but maintained ties with other factions. He repeatedly referred to Xi as "core" leader after being tapped for his current post, spurring talk that he switched over to Xi's faction.

"That General Secretary Xi Jinping is the core of the party's leadership is the greatest good fortune for the party," the country, and the Chinese people, Li Xi, the party secretary of Liaoning Province said in his opening remarks at a meeting of deputies from the province Sunday. He used the word "core" more than 20 times in about 10 minutes while lavishing praise on President Xi's "outstanding intellect and ingenuity among Marxist politicians."

The Liaoning chief likely sought to stress his loyalty in the wake of scandals that have rocked the provincial government since his 2015 appointment, including widespread vote-buying by provincial lawmakers. He pinned the blame on predecessor Wang Min, who was dismissed from the party last year over the scandals.

"Nothing bad will happen again since I am now in charge," Li noted with pride, to a frosty reception from some senior provincial officials.

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