Beijing Party secretary Cai Qi attends a meeting of Beijing Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing on Jan. 12, 2017. (Reuters)Beijing Party secretary Cai Qi attends a meeting of Beijing Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing on Jan. 12, 2017. (Reuters)

Cai Qi spent 14 years in several modest official positions in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang. Finally, in 2013, Cai became a deputy to the provincial number two.

In the past four years, however, Cai has enjoyed career progression somewhat similar to a multinational company employee in middle management being made chief executive officer overnight—with an additional offer to join the board of directors.

Cai was first plucked from Zhejiang to be deputy director of the Chinese regime’s national security organ in 2014. Then Cai was made acting and full Beijing mayor, and later landed the top job in Beijing municipality—Communist Party secretary of Beijing—in a span of six months between 2016 and 2017.

As Beijing boss, Cai, 60, also seems locked in for a seat in the Politburo—a 25-member elite decision making body—come the 19th National Congress, a key Party conclave, near the end of the year.

The Xi Jinping leadership’s recent appointment of Cai and over a dozen others to senior provincial positions has turned heads because they are technically non-elites—none of the newly promoted officials are in the Central Committee, a collection of over 300 ministerial-level officials.

Xi has likely chosen to elevate Cai and others, who are either Xi’s former work colleagues or academicians and technocrats, to more fully consolidate his control over the Chinese regime.

Political Deathmatch

On paper, general-secretary Xi Jinping already appears to be very powerful, being “core” leader of the Chinese regime, the top military overseer, and head of several key policy-making groups.

But in actuality, Xi is less influential than his many titles suggest.

Even before taking office in 2012, Xi was forced to contend with a powerful political faction helmed by former Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin. Jiang’s faction has previously been dominant for about two decades, and is responsible for perpetuating corruption, kleptocracy, and persecution in China.

Jiang faction elites had originally planned to dispose of Xi, a compromise candidate between Jiang and then outgoing Chinese leader Hu Jintao, in a coup, according to sources inside the Party and an account by an Obama administration official to Washington Free Beacon reporter Bill Gertz. Xi Jinping himself appeared to allude to the attempted coup in official speeches where he accused disgraced Jiang elites of forming “cliques and cabals” to “wreck and split” the Party.

Over the past five years, Xi has sought to shift the balance of power through an anti-corruption campaign, which has led to the downfall of many Jiang allies and supporters in various governing organs and the military. More than a million officials have been investigated for corruption since 2013, of which over 200 are Party elites, according to Chinese state media.  

Officials, possibly unhappy with being unable to make an easy fortune through corruption, have recently been found to be passively resisting the Xi leadership by refusing or poorly carrying out orders from Party central, according to Chinese scholars or indirect allusions in reports by the Party’s anti-corruption agency.

The result of the “deathmatch” between the Xi leadership and Jiang’s faction is stagnation in the Chinese regime—in the past five years, Xi hasn’t been able to push through substantial economic, legal, or security reforms.   

Reshuffling the Provinces

In light of the current political situation in the Chinese regime, the Xi Jinping leadership’s recent elevation of Beijing boss Cai Qi and several other officials to top provincial positions despite their non-elite status seems to be born out of dire necessity rather than a willful attempt to break with the regime’s convention.

If Xi were to promote officials from among the current pool of Central Committee members, or within many important provincial-level administrations like Beijing, Chongqing, or Xinjiang, he runs the risk of entrenching the Chinese “deep state” that comprises lines of officials whose political patronage can be traced to Jiang Zemin’s faction.

Xi will unlikely want to go another five years being unable to properly push through his policies. Stacking the number one and two offices in key provinces with loyalists or capable academicians and technocrats with no political alignment is one way to break the impasse.

Xi’s efforts at political reshuffling is best seen in Beijing.

Beijing Party chief Cai Qi worked with Xi in the southern provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang. New acting mayor Chen Jining was president of the prestigious Tsinghua University until 2015 before serving as Minister of Environmental Protection. Two new Beijing municipal Party committee members, the political advisory organ chief, and the legislature chief were all brought in from outside Beijing.

Xi has either replicated or appears to be in the process of effecting similar political appointments in the other key provincial-level administrations such as Tianjin, Chongqing, Guangdong, Xinjiang, and Shanghai, long the base of operations of Jiang Zemin.

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