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Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Chen Miner attends a session at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Oct. 19, 2017.   © Reuters

Chongqing rocked by corruption probe as political survivor returns

City's upheaval reflects the power games being played in Beijing

SHUNSUKE TABETA, Nikkei staff writer | China

CHONGQING, China -- In this sprawling city of 30 million, one of the world's most populous, radical changes are afoot at the top echelons of power.

In little over a year, nine of the 11 members of the standing committee that forms the municipal party leadership have been replaced. The complete overhall is an attempt to remove any officials seen to be close to former local party chiefs Bo Xilai and Sun Zhengcai, who have been purged by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In July, Xi installed close aide Chen Min'er as Chongqing's Communist Party secretary, the top official. Chen had been chief of Guizhou Province. Widely seen as a leading candidate to succeed Xi in the future, Chen has repeatedly spoken of his determination to wipe out Bo's and Sun's influence. State-run China Central Television has reminded viewers of Chen's words four times this year alone.

"We are resolved to get rid of the vicious influence of Sun Zhengcai and the remaining poison of Bo-Wang thought," Chen said on Feb. 5 at a meeting of Chongqing's discipline inspection commission, an anti-graft body. "Bo-Wang thought" refers to the corrupt practices of Bo and close aide Wang Lijun, who served as vice mayor.

Amid the purge, however, one figure who served under both Bo and Sun has made a surprising return to Chongqing: influential former mayor Huang Qifan.

After leaving this southwestern city in December 2016 to take up a new position in Beijing, Huang returned in January as the local head of the Political Consultative Conference, an advisory position. He has been called a "tumbler" and "political survivor" for managing to stay in the game, despite the downfalls of Bo and Sun.

Former Chongqing mayors Huang Qifan and Wang Honju (second row, left and right, respectively), sit behind municipal party chief Chen Min'er (front row, center), at the opening ceremony of the Chongqing Municipal People's Congress.

Huang made a strong impression at the opening ceremony of the Chongqing Municipal People's Congress in late January, sitting immediately behind Party Secretary Chen. To Huang's side was Wang Honju, a powerful former mayor seen as a local don.

The return of Huang is seen to be the work of Wang Yang, China's No. 4. The Politburo Standing Committee member used to be Chongqing secretary himself and well knows the talents of his former subordinate. Wang is expected to become head of the National Committee of the Political Consultative Conference in March.

"His reassignment back to the city may be aimed at stabilizing Chongqing, which has been unsettled by the leadership changes," said a person familiar with the matter.

Huang began his Communist Party career as a bureaucrat in Shanghai. He was involved in a project to develop the city's Pudong New Area and became Chongqing's vice mayor in 2001.

Huang worked under six party secretaries -- He Guoqiang, Huang Zhendong, Wang Yang, Bo, Zhang Dejiang and Sun. He contributed to Chongqing's rapid economic growth by playing roles in opening a railway between China and Europe as well as in other projects.

The most effective way to eliminate the influence of former leaders is by getting rid of people closely associated with them. Sun was sacked in July 2017, suspected of still harboring Bo-Wang thought, China watchers say, partly because he continued giving important positions to senior officials promoted during the Bo era.

The nine new members of the Standing Committee of Chongqing were brought in from elsewhere.

The three key members are Secretary Chen, Mayor Tang Liangzhi and Chen Yong, secretary of the city's discipline inspection commission and chief of the supervision commission.

Tang built his political career in Hubei Province and demonstrated leadership as chief of Chengdu, Sichuan Province. In Sichuan, he is credited with eliminating a personal network built by Zhou Yongkang, a former senior party leader seen as close to Bo.

Chen Yong was born in Liaoning Province and served as vice minister of the Ministry of Supervision after working at the anti-corruption commission under Wang Qishan, who headed President Xi's anti-corruption campaign. Chen became secretary of Chongqing's discipline inspection commission in December 2016 and has since spearheaded a behind-the-scenes anti-corruption drive.

Beijing has also installed party members from other locations to key municipal posts, including heads of the party secretariat, the united front work department and the organization department.

Sun was stripped of his party membership and prosecuted on Feb. 13. Among other members of the municipal standing committee during Sun's era, Zhang Guoqing was transferred to Tianjin as mayor, after serving as Chongqing's mayor for a year.

In October, five committee members were disqualified as delegates to the Communist Party congress. The heads of the development and reform commission in charge of economic policy, the economic information commission and the traffic commission have been demoted.

As is the case in regions around the country, the leadership changes in Chongqing reflect the networks of power that radiate out from Beijing.

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