BEIJING -- China's top decision-making body, led by President Xi Jinping, recently promoted a succession of young leaders in their 40s to high-level official positions.
The Politburo Standing Committee appointed nearly 20 individuals to vice governor-level posts, including the vice mayor of Chongqing and vice governor of Fujian Province. Many of them formerly belonged to the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which oversees the financial sector and is in charge of exposing corruption.
Observers say Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, a close ally of Xi, was behind the appointments. Wang has experience in the financial sector and supported Xi as the Chinese leader consolidated his power by exposing corruption and ridding the party of potential rivals.
Li Bo, promoted to become vice mayor of Chongqing in September, graduated from Renmin University of China, which has a reputation as a college for the children of China's elite. Li went on to graduate studies at Boston University and subsequently earned a doctorate in economics at Stanford University and a doctorate in law at Harvard University.
He also worked for a major law firm in the U.S. In China, a person who gains knowledge and expertise abroad and returns home is often referred to as a "haigui," or sea turtle which returns to where it was born to lay eggs. Li is a typical example.
At a late September meeting of the Chongqing Mayor's International Economic Advisory Council, Li made his presence felt by announcing the appointment of business leaders of over 30 companies from around the world as advisers.
After returning to China in 2004, Li built his career at the People's Bank of China, the central bank, where he worked until 2018. In September, he was sent to Chongqing as vice mayor to help bolster the economic agenda of Chen Min'er, who is secretary of the Chinese Communist Party's Chongqing Municipal Committee.
Chen has been close to Xi since the latter served in the Zhejiang provincial government. Chen is seen as a potential appointee to the Politburo Standing Committee.
Li Bo is not the only financial-sector executive who has been named to a provincial vice governor-level post. Guo Ningning, who became vice governor of Fujian Province last November, was formerly a high-ranking official at the Bank of China, one of China's top four state-run banks.
After heading the bank's Hong Kong and Singapore operations, she was installed as the vice president of Agricultural Bank of China in 2016. Educated at Tsinghua University, Xi's alma mater, she met Xi and his wife when the couple visited Singapore, where she was working at the time. Guo is widely expected to be promoted to a higher post if she performs well as the province's vice governor.
In Sichuan and Liaoning provinces where corruption involving government officials was uncovered, as it was in Chongqing, Xi's administration is focusing on enhancing control there.
Li Yunze, former senior executive vice president of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and Zhang Lilin, former executive vice president of China Construction Bank, have been made vice governors of those provinces. In Shandong, another corruption-ridden province, Liu Qiang, formerly executive vice president of Bank of China, serves as vice governor. Shandong is home to Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan.
"I feel the intention of Wang Qishan behind the appointment of young banking-sector officials to vice governors," said a senior official of a regional government in China. A financial expert, Wang was vice president of People's Bank of China and the president of People's Construction Bank of China in the 1990s.
In 1998, he took the post of Guangdong Province's vice governor and spearheaded efforts to dispose of financially troubled nonbanks affiliated with the provincial government. During the global financial crisis in 2008, as vice premier in charge of financial affairs, he pushed through a drastic rate cut, which sparked the rapid recovery of the Chinese economy. With this background, he wields strong influence over the financial sector.
Since Wang headed the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection for several years from 2012 and charged many officials with graft, a number of former commission members have also been promoted to important posts. Zhou Liang, who has served as vice chairman of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission since 2018, is closely tied with Wang, for instance.
Zhou was a secretary to Wang when he was the mayor of Beijing and worked under Wang at the CCDI. Li Xinran, a banking commission member since last year, exposed many corruption cases, earning Wang's deep trust.
The promotion of young officials isn't new. Previous strongman Deng Xiaoping, who led the reform and liberalization of China, promoted and appointed a large number of officials in their 30s to key posts. Many were former members of the Communist Youth League of China.
Premier Li Keqiang assumed an important post in his 30s in the 1980s. Wang Yang, chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consulative Conference, and Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua won significant promotions in their 30s in the 1990s.
In the Xi era, however, the CYLC has lost much of its influence. Of about 20 provincial vice governor-level officials born in the 1970s, only two are former CYLC members. Hu Haifeng, son of former President Hu Jintao, also has to be content with the post of party secretary of Lishui in Zhejiang Province.
Behind the promotion of officials in their 40s under the Xi leadership lies his ambition to stay at the national helm for an unusually long time. The presidential term was originally limited to two five-year terms in China.
The successor of Xi, who was born in 1953, was supposed to be someone born in the 1960s. But the presidential term limit was lifted by revising the constitution at the National People's Congress, China's parliament, in 2018. If Xi hangs on for a third term, it raises the possibility that someone born in the 1970s will become the next president, shining a light on that generation of high-ranking officials.