BEIJING -- Last month, the inland city of Chongqing once again shook Chinese politics to the core. Sun Zhengcai, secretary of the city's Communist Party committee and a likely candidate to succeed President Xi Jinping, was detained. Five years ago, another potential successor, Bo Xilai, then committee secretary, was dismissed. With the two men once so close to China's top seat now out of the picture, the city's political center of gravity is increasingly shifting toward a long-time local kingpin.
"How are you, Mayor Wang?" On July 16, on Chen Min'er's first day as the new head of Chongqing, following a surprise appointment to replace Sun, he visited the city's former mayor Wang Hongju at his home -- mayor is second in rank after secretary. Chen is a close aide to the president. He headed Guizhou Province before assuming the new post. During the meeting, Chen sought advice on city administration from the former mayor.
So who is this former mayor? Born in Chongqing in 1945, Wang studied mathematics at prestigious Sichuan University, and in the midst of the Cultural Revolution he worked at a mine in a village that later became part of Chongqing. He then served some senior posts at the county level, among other lower-level positions. In 1997, when Chongqing was promoted to China's fourth direct-controlled municipality after Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, he became the city's vice mayor. He successfully turned the city's economy from one led primarily by military demand to one underpinned by private-sector demand.
His boss, He Guoqiang, who was Chongqing secretary from 1999 to 2002, is a strongman. He went on to become head of the Communist Party's Organization Department in 2002, joined the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007, and served as the secretary of the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, among other posts. Wang and He are said to be close.
In 2003, Wang became Chonqing's mayor and, from 2005 to 2007, served under Secretary Wang Yang, who is currently China's vice premier. He also worked for Wang Yang's successor, Bo, who hailed from the center. In 2009, Wang Hongju stepped down as mayor to become deputy director of the Environmental Protection and Resources Conservation Committee of the National People's Congress. With a vast network of people, he still wields much power over how the city is run. At a meeting of Chongqing representatives at this year's NPC, Wang sat at a table alongside Sun and Zhang Guoqing, the current Chongqing mayor, chatting casually and reminding people of his presence.
Political heavyweights like Wang Hongju arise because of "a government structure unique to China in which the central government unilaterally controls local governments," explained a senior official of a China consultancy. In the case of Chongqing, secretaries and mayors usually come from the central government and do not know much about the city -- currently, only four of the city's 12 standing committee members are Chongqing natives. As a result, it is essential for such newcomers to build relations with local kingpins. "If you want to get things done in Chongqing, you must be friends with Wang [Hongju]," a local business official said.
Occasionally, however, tension arises between the outsiders and locals. After Bo launched a sweeping gang-busting operation and arrested many local business people, his relationship with Wang deteriorated. Some speculated that the tension between the two led to Wang's resignation as mayor. Wang, however, was never arrested by Bo or Wang Lijun, former vice mayor and head of the public security bureau at the time. He was also safe under Sun. His relationship with the latest secretary, Chen, seems to have got off to a good start.
Measures from above, countermeasures from below. As the Chinese saying goes, in a country of more than 1.3 billion people with distinctively unique cultures in different parts of the country, the central government's control tends to wane outside major cities. Just like its ancient dynasties, today's Communist Party also struggles to control the countryside. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, led by Wang Qishan, the president's confidant, has been pushing for an anticorruption campaign across the country but has yet to succeed in gaining full control of the countryside.
Led from the center
Since 2012, six top officials who were vice mayor or above have gone in Chongqing. Of the replacements, five were sent from the central government and only one is a local. When Sun was dismissed, locals largely took it as a mere defeat in a power game at the central level. A local company executive said: "He [Guoqiang] and Wang [Yang] were promoted and Bo and Sun were pushed aside, and this had little impact on the local community. The head of Chongqing changes every five or so years at the most so the [secretary] only needs to serve that term without a hitch."
Chongqing is not alone in facing this problem. Of China's 31 provinces, autonomous regions and direct-controlled municipalities, only Shanghai and Tibet have local party secretaries chosen from the local community. And only five regions, including the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, have native officials in top administrative posts such as provincial head. On average only about 40% of the standing members of the 31 local Communist Party committees are locally selected.
The central government sees local governments as the hotbed of corruption. But it is the central government's unilateral control that is fostering unity among local governments. The central government must work out a structure that will allow local institutions to stand on their own to a greater extent.