July 17, 2017 3:48 am JST

Xi's anti-corruption purge reaches top brass

Investigation of active Politburo member is first under Chinese leader

SHUNSUKE TABETA, Nikkei staff writer

Sun Zhengcai, right, chats with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang during the opening session of the National People's Congress in Beijing in March 2016. © Reuters

CHONGQING -- Chinese President Xi Jinping's sweeping anti-graft campaign has ensnared for the first time a sitting member of the Communist Party's top leadership, suggesting a bold power grab by Xi ahead of a key party congress this fall.

The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, China's anti-corruption body, is investigating Sun Zhengcai, part of the 25-member ruling Politburo. Sun was stripped Saturday of his title as party chief overseeing Chongqing, the sprawling metropolis in southwestern China. Although the charges have not been officially disclosed, Sun is reportedly under scrutiny in connection with another investigation, of He Ting, the city's former top police official and deputy mayor, for disciplinary violations.

In January 2013, not long after Xi assumed power, the Chinese president pledged to crack down on prominent "tigers" and lower-level "flies" in the Chinese political machinery. However, Xi's tigers were limited to ex-Politburo officials, such as Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the elite Politburo Standing Committee, and Bo Xilai, Chongqing's one-time party boss.

The current case against Sun is unprecedented in Xi's term as president. During Sun's stint in the senior leadership overseeing Beijing, he caught the eye of Jia Qinglin, the city's party chief at the time, and then-Premier Wen Jiabao. He saw his cachet rise when both men tapped him to be China's minister of agriculture.

But Sun is not part of Xi's inner circle. Nor is he seen connected to the so-called Shanghai faction, which includes former President Jiang Zemin, and to the Communist Youth League camp, which includes Xi's immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao.

A lack of high-powered backers likely paved the way for Sun's downfall. Things started looking dim in February when the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection castigated Sun for failing to clear out the rot left by Bo and his cronies.

A struggle for power always goes hand-in-hand with the twice-a-decade Communist Party congress. Meanwhile, Guo Wengui, the Chinese billionaire on the run in the U.S., is accusing anti-graft czar Wang Qishan, who is close to Xi, of himself amassing illicit wealth. Xi is likely feeling pressure to tighten the screws on the party leadership amid those broadsides.

Sun's replacement as Chongqing's party chief, Chen Min'er, sent a notice late Saturday ordering the replacement of outdoor signboards outlining Sun's urban redevelopment plan and speeches.

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