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At Shanghai congress, all eyes on fate of Xi's close ally Li Qiang

COVID lockdown in Chinese economic hub erodes confidence in former rising star

Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang's political outlook darkened after he struggled to tame the city's surge in COVID infections this spring.   © Reuters

SHANGHAI -- The uncertain future of Shanghai's Communist Party chief looms as the local party committee gathers Saturday for its congress, just weeks after the city's draconian coronavirus lockdown.

Li Qiang, the secretary of the Shanghai party committee, has been in the running to join the Politburo Standing Committee -- China's most powerful body -- at the twice-a-decade national party congress this fall.

Li is a close ally of President Xi Jinping, having served under Xi when China's current leader held the top provincial office in Zhejiang. Expectations were growing that the Shanghai boss even could be tapped to succeed Premier Li Keqiang, who is set to retire in March 2023.

But Li Qiang's political outlook darkened after he struggled to tame Shanghai's surge in omicron variant infections this spring. The city of over 20 million people endured a strict COVID-19 lockdown that lasted more than two months.

To Li's embarrassment, Beijing sent Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, in charge of the country's public health policy, to Shanghai in early April to provide instructions to the city on curbing infections.

Li's leadership and his chances to join the Politburo Standing Committee have fallen into doubt ahead of the three-day Shanghai congress slated to end Monday.

The party chief position in Shanghai, China's economic powerhouse, has served as a steppingstone to the Standing Committee. All of Li's predecessors moved up to the influential body in recent years except for Chen Liangyu, who was sacked in 2006 over a pension fund scandal.

Former Shanghai party bosses include Xi, who took the post in 2007 before ascending to the Standing Committee at the national party congress in the autumn of that year. Xi has been the Chinese Communist Party leader since 2012.

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