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China up close

Shanghai boils with aspirations of replacing Li Keqiang

Chinese politicians not named Xi Jinping or Wang Qishan jockey for 2023

TOKYO -- Shortly after sparking a controversy over the rescue of boys trapped in a Thai cave, Tesla CEO Elon Musk appeared in the booming city of Shanghai for a signing ceremony heralding his electric vehicle maker's first overseas plant.

The Shanghai factory is to produce up to 500,000 vehicles a year, a significant scale for an auto plant, and Musk's appearance was a win for China, now locked in a fierce trade war with the U.S., home of Tesla.

The city of Shanghai is seen in a good light these days, having been at the forefront of China's policy of opening up to the outside world. But the commercial hub is now in the political spotlight for a separate reason.

In the spring of 2023, China's No. 2, Premier Li Keqiang, 63, will most certainly step down. With President Xi Jinping and Vice President Wang Qishan now in office for indefinite terms, the fight to replace Li will be the most contested political battle for years to come.

The strongest candidates for the position are rumored to be in Shanghai, a place where Xi spent half a year before ascending to the Politburo Standing Committee, the ruling Chinese Communist Party's top decision-making body.

Shanghai is now under the control of the Zhejiang faction, which comprises President Xi Jinping's former subordinates in the neighboring province and forms the core of Xi's political group.

Shanghai Communist Party Secretary Li Qiang   © Reuters

Xi long served as Zhejiang province's top official and then did a brief stint in Shanghai before returning to Beijing and rising to the top of the party. Against this background, Xi deployed members of the Zhejiang faction to the economically important city of Shanghai.

Li Qiang, 59, leads the Zhejiang faction members dispatched to Shanghai. Li helms the city as the local party secretary.

Li served as Xi's chief secretary during Xi's time as Zhejiang's top official. As Xi's bag-carrier, Li accompanied Xi wherever he went. Li is said to have memorized both the faces and names of all the foreign guests Xi met with.

The Shanghai rumor mills have it that Li is the front-runner for the premiership.

Ying Yong, 60, currently serves as Shanghai mayor, under Li Qiang. Like Li, Ying is a native of Zhejiang and belongs to the Zhejiang faction. Shanghai's top two posts are held by Zhejiang faction members.

Ying was seen alongside Musk during the Tesla signing ceremony on July 10.

In China, where there are no elections to decide the fate of a politician, personnel moves can have major repercussions. If one becomes the underling of the wrong boss, their careers could be instantly over.

Shanghai mayor Ying Yong   © Reuters

Since the Xi era began, innumerable senior officials have been ensnared by the president's signature anti-corruption campaign. Every politician must calculate who will be in which position, perhaps two cycles ahead, just to be safe.

"If the top leader remains unchanged with Xi, then Li Qiang, who is stable and a secretary-type, will be one of the candidates for premier," one Shanghai political pundit said. Of the Zhejiang faction members, Li keeps a low profile, whch is what Xi is said to like. 

In late June, Li met with former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who was visiting Shanghai to attend the opening ceremony for Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Japan research center.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University is former Chinese President Jiang Zemin's alma mater. While Shanghai is famous for leading the way in China's opening-up reforms, it also happens to be a region advanced in research on Japanese affairs.

Li Qiang's strongest selling point is that he has landed the coveted position of Shanghai party secretary. Not only is it the seat that Xi held himself, it is a position that gives Li access to mobilize a powerful network of economic connections that extends across the south of China.

Adjacent to Shanghai are the industry powerhouse Jiangsu province, and the bustling hub of private companies, Zhejiang province. Together they form what is known as the Greater Shanghai area.

"Li Qiang has made a series of remarks about developing the Greater Shanghai area," a foreign source said, instead of the traditional Shanghai. 

Li Qiang took up Shanghai's top post after serving as Zhejiang governor, the province's No. 2 post, and then as the party secretary of Jiangsu, the top provincial post.

Chen Min'er, the Chinese Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, is a possible candidate to become China's next premier. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

Another member of the Zhejiang faction is envisioning a less rosy future. Shortly before the party's 19th national congress in October, Chen Min'er, 57, was hand-picked as Chongqing's top official. Chen replaced the disgraced Sun Zhengcai.

Sun, 54, was once widely regarded as the front-runner in the race to succeed Xi as party chief.

Until fall, Chen's reputation was so high that he was tipped as an eventual candidate to succeed Xi. But Chen failed to join the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee at the party congress. What's more, as things stand now, Xi, 65, can be re-elected to a third term as the top party leader, in effect wiping out Chen's chances of taking the party leader's job with a retiring Xi's blessing at the next national congress, in 2022.

Still, some believe Chen is suitable to head the State Council, China's cabinet, as Chinese premier; others argue he is not.

During their time in Zhejiang, Chen wrote Xi's speeches. Chen also has much experience in propaganda affairs.

Contrary to Li Qiang, Chen likes to be in the spotlight. At press conferences, Chen grants questions to reporter after reporter, answering with ease. Chen is a high profile politician whose every move is followed by the press corps.

Xi's second five-year term has just started. But it is inevitable that one day a fierce race will break out within the Zhejiang faction for promotions. 

Cai Qi, who became Beijing's top official in May 2017, also belongs to the Zhejiang faction. The 62-year-old is a native of Fujian Province but has long work experience in Zhejiang. While working there, he caught Xi's attention.

But Cai's reputation has already taken a blow in Beijing. Desperate to get off to a strong start as party chief of the Chinese capital, Cai caused confusion in his attempts to control the migrant population. His campaign to remove illegal signboards from streets en masse did little to beautify the capital and just left ugly, empty walls.

It was like scoring two own goals.

Cai Qi, the Chinese Communist Party secretary of Beijing, has gotten off to a rocky start as the capital's top official. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

Huang Xingguo is also a native of Zhejiang. But the former top official of Tianjin has lost his power. Judging from his background, Huang initially appeared to belong to the Zhejiang faction. But his downfall on disciplinary grounds proved that he was not close to Xi after all. 

Among those who have been promoted to key posts after pursuing careers in Shanghai is Ding Xuexiang, 55. Ding currently serves as director of the party's General Office, which manages the party's routine administrative affairs. It is an important post, equivalent to White House chief of staff or Japan's chief cabinet secretary.

Ding is a native of Jiangsu but has long work experience in Shanghai. He is well versed in international and economic affairs, has a sharp mind and has been a competent bureaucrat.

Li Qiang, Ding Xuexiang and Ying Yong form what can be called the new Shanghai faction, as opposed to the traditional Shanghai faction, which wielded enormous influence under former President Jiang and former Vice President Zeng Qinghong.

Jiang, 91, still has a vast residence in Shanghai. Zeng, 79, served as Jiang's strategist. The traditional Shanghai faction, led by Jiang, has many elderly members and can now be called the "old Shanghai faction."

The truth is that the Jiang-Zeng duo played a significant role in helping still little-known Xi rise to the top of the party hierarchy.

But after coming to power, Xi quieted old Shanghai faction members with his anti-corruption crackdown, weakening the faction's power and consolidating his own.

Two of the current seven Politburo Standing Committee members have good relations with the old Shanghai faction. One is Wang Huning, and the other is Han Zheng. Wang, 62, and Han, 64, are ranked fifth and seventh in the party hierarchy.

Wang was hand-picked by the Jiang-Zeng duo as a key architect of party theory. He once worked as a scholar of international politics at the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai.

Han currently serves as China's first vice premier. He was promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee last autumn after working in Shanghai as the city's top official.

What relations the new Shanghai faction builds with the old Shanghai faction is also an issue that will attract attention, particularly because politics have become unfavorable to Xi since China and the U.S. began lobbing sanctions in a trade war. 

Xi is said to be criticized by party elders for creating a cult of personality around himself, which the party's constitution bans.

Many of those who are criticizing the president are also members of the old Shanghai faction.

How things turn out for Xi could very well be decided in the city.

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