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Former subordinates of Xi Jinping in Zhejiang Province have gone on to assume key roles across China, giving the president a powerful grip over the country. (Nikkei Montage/ Source photo by Kyodo/ Getty Images/ Reuters)
China up close

Xi's faction grabs more power as virus crisis worsens

'Zhejiang's new army' adds Hubei and Hong Kong to strongholds Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

TOKYO -- When Chinese official Ying Yong was running the public security and police divisions in the eastern province of Zhejiang in the early 2000s, his boss, the party secretary of the province, was Xi Jinping.

Ying and other ex-Zhejiang officials forged close relationships with Xi and have remained loyal to him, forming what is known as the Zhejiang faction, or "Zhejiang's new army." It is perhaps the most closely knit group of the Chinese president's allies -- and also his power base.

The 63-year-old Ying was until recently the mayor of Shanghai, a highly prestigious position. Now he has been tapped to be the party secretary of Hubei Province, whose capital city is Wuhan, the epicenter of the new coronavirus outbreak.

Amid a national crisis that is expected to delay even the most important political event of the year, the annual two-week session of the National People's Congress, the country's parliament, Xi decided to fire the previous Hubei chief and install a trusted ally.

A Chinese source familiar with the country's politics explained the political significance of the sudden roster change.

"In addition to the top positions in Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, three major municipalities, the Zhejiang faction has now got its hands on the top post of Hubei, a strategic juncture in central China," the source said. "Amid a serious national crisis, the Xi faction remains strong, at least on the surface."

Xi, 66, doubles as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. He served as Zhejiang Province's top official between 2002 and 2007, living in Hangzhou, the province's historic and scenic capital.

Since he became China's top leader, Xi has deployed many of his former subordinates to lead various parts of the country.

Ying is one of them. And now he has been tasked with the difficult challenge of running Hubei, where many new deaths are reported every day. Only somebody Xi trusts could have been handed such a crucial job.

Another prominent member of the Zhejiang faction is Chen Min'er, Chongqing's top official. The 59-year-old has drawn attention as a candidate to step into Xi's shoes sometime in the future.

Chongqing party secretary Chen Min'er is a prominent member of Xi's Zhejiang faction and widely seen as a potential candidate to succeed him. (Photo by Akira Kodaka) 

Chen served Xi as Zhejiang's top propaganda official and was Xi's speech writer. He was deployed to Chongqing to replace Sun Zhengcai, a top leadership candidate before he was ensnared by Xi's anti-corruption campaign three years ago.

Li Qiang, 60, Shanghai's current party secretary, was Xi's secretary during the latter's time in Zhejiang. Later, Li served as Zhejiang governor. He is seen by some as a future candidate to be premier because of his relatively young age and steady administrative hand.

Cai Qi, 64, the top official of Beijing, China's capital, is also an old Xi associate. Cai was mayor of Hangzhou, Zhejiang's capital city, before being promoted to Beijing party secretary in 2017.

The Xi faction gained control of all three important municipalities -- Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing -- through the corruption crackdown. Now the fight against the coronavirus is offering the clan a similar golden opportunity.

Xi Jinping and a close aide, Beijing party secretary Cai Qi, inspect coronavirus pneumonia prevention and control work in Beijing on Feb. 10.   © Xinhua/ Kyodo

Hubei has been a gateway to top leadership teams in the past.

Yu Zhengsheng, now 74, was Hubei's party secretary before being promoted to the 25-member Politburo. He then went on to join the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the party's top decision-making body, during Xi's first five-year term as party chief.

Politburo member Li Hongzhong, 63, who concurrently serves as the top official of the major city of Tianjin, was previously Hubei's top official.

If Ying Yong, the new Hubei chief, manages to weather the storm there, history tells us he will have a bright future.

Another important element in Ying's appointment is that he is an expert on public security, policing and judicial matters.

Wang Zhonglin, 57, who was chosen this time to replace the top official in Wuhan city, also has a lot of experience in public security and policing.

The promotions of Ying and Wang reflect Xi's concerns regarding public order and social stability in Wuhan and the rest of Hubei, where strong public discontent is brewing over the handling of the epidemic.

The virus has killed more than 2,000 in mainland China alone, and its wildfire spread is widely thought to be "a human-made disaster." There is criticism that the tragedy was allowed to develop as leaders initially kept a lid on information, delaying a response.

It was risky to replace the on-site commanding officer during such a sensitive time, but Xi was determined. Public anger toward the handling of the outbreak has already led to calls for free speech. If this mood catches on, it would be a failure for Xi.

The vigilant Xi wanted trusted allies in Hubei.

Ying and Wang are arriving in Wuhan as police and public security authorities have been under fire from the public for punishing Li Wenliang, a young ophthalmologist who flagged the mysterious illness early on.

Dr. Li, scolded for spreading "false rumors," caught the virus himself and died, becoming a martyrlike figure.

If the truth had been conveyed across the country -- and the world -- when Li initially pointed it out, the outbreak could have been better tamed, people believe.

With veterans of public security and police affairs in charge, Hubei and Wuhan will most certainly prioritize stability. The much-needed disclosure of detailed information will likely take a back seat.

Circumstantial evidence of this can be seen in a current World Health Organization mission to Hubei, where experts have been conducting an on-site investigation. As of Feb. 18, there had been no news regarding the WHO inspection.

A "human-made disaster" is a categorization that Xi wants to avoid. He has therefore taken another countermeasure.

In the latest edition of Qiushi, the party's theoretical journal, Xi published a speech he delivered on Feb. 3 to the Politburo Standing Committee.

The part of the speech that surprised many China watchers was Xi's account that he had given instructions to counter the virus as far back as Jan. 7.

The revelation is hard to believe. If true, then an official announcement in Chinese media that said Xi issued instructions on Jan. 20 was not.

The major adjustment of dates was aimed at fending off criticism of a man-made disaster.

Moreover, if Xi truly had issued instructions on Jan. 7, somebody else would have made the error of not swiftly carrying out those orders.

Would that be the State Council led by Premier Li Keqiang? Or perhaps medical experts dispatched to Wuhan from Beijing? Or maybe the people on the ground in Wuhan and the rest of Hubei?

Comments on social media said Xi was playing "a blame game." Others said the move represented "buck-passing at the highest level." Such online posts are subject to deletion by authorities.

On Feb. 13, there was an announcement of another important personnel change. Xia Baolong, a 67-year-old vice chairman and secretary-general of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, was appointed to concurrently serve as director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office.

Xia has served as Zhejiang's top official and belongs to Xi's Zhejiang faction.

His appointment as head of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office reflects Xi's intention to "directly rule" unstable Hong Kong through a close aide.

When massive anti-government demonstrations continued in Hong Kong last year, information about the territory's situation reached Beijing's Zhongnanhai area, China's political nerve center, only indirectly, leaving Xi frustrated.

Elections for Hong Kong's Legislative Council, the territory's parliament, are scheduled for September, and Xi cannot afford to see "pro-China forces" suffer another crushing defeat as they did in district council elections in November.

The man who knew too much? Former Zheijing party secretary Xia Baolong is said to have been close enough to Xi Jinping to learn compromising facts. Now, Xia has now been given the key role of overseeing Hong Kong affairs on the State Council.   © Kyodo

Xia is an especially intriguing figure, said to have been so close to Xi that he knew too much, including potentially compromising information on him.

When Xia was given the not-so-flashy position of vice chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference two years ago, there was speculation that this knowledge had denied him a shot at joining the Politburo.

But the political veteran's unexpected turn has now come.

Despite the personnel changes being made in a coolheaded manner in the middle of a national crisis, there is smoldering criticism within the party that only Xi's close aides are being appointed to key posts.

A growing number of party apparatchiks are coming to believe that personnel changes need to be made in a balanced manner, with a focus on ability and organizational management, and that better information disclosure is necessary.

If such views burst into the open and lead to specific action, China's political battle will enter a new stage.

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He has spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.

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