BEIJING -- China's graft czar is stepping down from the job and from the Communist Party's ruling body after a whirlwind five years, his crackdown on corruption generating opposition too strong even for President Xi Jinping to dispel without risking his political clout.
Throughout Xi's first five years as party chief, it was common knowledge that Wang Qishan, his graft-busting right-hand man, was second in command for all practical purposes. The crusading figure smashed the unwritten rule that former members of the elite Politburo Standing Committee were safe from prosecution, going after such heavyweights as Zhou Yongkang, the former head of China's security services now serving life in prison for corruption.
Over the past half-decade, Wang's investigations have led to more than 1.4 million members of the party being punished for corruption. Xi, who has been close to Wang since youth, was happy to remind listeners of this in a report to the party's twice-a-decade National Congress last week, calling the anti-graft drive an "overwhelming" development and an emerging fixture of Chinese political life.
Too much trouble
Wang has won a reputation for deft crisis management throughout his career, seeing China through the 2008 financial crash and the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic that swept the country starting in late 2002. Xi sought to retain this indispensable expertise during his second term as party chief, despite the party's custom of having those over 68 retire.
But opposition from other members proved too strong to overcome. Wang was not among those chosen to sit on the party's Central Committee at the party congress, and so has lost his spot on the powerful Standing Committee as well. A source at the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the graft-busting entity Wang headed, praised his track record but opposed keeping him on board, unhappy with his autocratic approach. Many others feel the same: Wang's crackdown on displays of wealth and luxury spending among party officials has made him an object of strong resentment.
"If Xi had made it a top priority, he probably would have been able to ignore the retirement rule" and keep Wang among the top leadership, a party source said. But the president's true No. 1 goal is party stability, and burning up political capital on Wang could have hurt Xi's ability to influence other appointments and protect his standing over the next five years.
Wang's successor as graft czar is Zhao Leji -- a low-profile official who nevertheless boasts a formidable record within the party. Zhao became China's youngest governor in
2000, when he was put in charge of Qinghai Province. As party secretary of Shaanxi Province in 2007, Zhao oversaw the construction of a massive memorial to Xi Zhongxun, father of Xi Jinping. During Xi's first term, Zhao was picked to oversee staffing as head of the Central Committee's Organization Department, and awarded a number of key posts to the president's followers.
With Zhao and other key aides such as Li Zhanshu, the president's de facto chief of staff, by his side, Xi should have little trouble keeping a strong grip on Chinese politics even with Wang gone. After all, the president has no political rivals that pose a real threat to his power. And his former anti-corruption chief may still be available to help when needed: Some say a key post could be waiting for Wang elsewhere.