By: Benjamin Cooper and Sherry Lu

With the 19th Party Congress scheduled to kick off on October 18th, the behemoth on Beijing’s political calendar is now bearing down on us full-tilt, and speculation abounds as to which newcomers will fill the five expected vacancies on the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), China’s supreme decision-making panel.

Beijing has a long tradition of cherry-picking for higher office from amongst the most promising political blossoms occupying the most powerful provincial-level roles across the country’s regional orchard. For example, 19 of the 25 members of the current Politburo – more than three-quarters – and six of the seven members of the PBSC have served as provincial Party secretaries, the highest-ranked position in each of China’s 31 provincial-level administrations.[1] In short, the currency of extensive local governance experience holds almost unparalleled value for rising political stars who aspire to ascend to the uppermost reaches of China’s political firmament.

Next month’s Party Congress will flatten once and for all the ubiquitous guesswork about the likeliest composition of the Chinese leadership team for President Xi’s second term. However, we would like to ensure that our clients in both the domestic and foreign business communities are well-versed in the backgrounds of those heavyweight regional contenders who may well be waiting in the PBSC wings, particularly in terms of their career histories and apparent policy priorities and preferences.

As a result, after our earlier article covering President Xi’s coterie of close advisors, H+K Strategies now follows the red-brick road along China’s regional supply chain for higher office for the second entry in our series of leadership profiling. On the way, we examine several prominent politicians who may be carried by the Party Congress tide onto the highest shoal of national leadership next month, specifically the Party’s foremost leaders in Shanghai, Guangdong, and Chongqing.

Mr. Han Zheng – Party Secretary of Shanghai

Viewed as a frontrunner for the PBSC, Shanghai-native Han Zheng has served as both the city’s top leader and a concurrent member of the Politburo since 2012. Han stands out within the uppermost echelons of China’s national leadership for having spent the entirety of his career within a single city – Shanghai – whereas the majority of his colleagues have typically ascended through the political hierarchy by accumulating varied governance experience across several regions.

Born in 1954, Han holds a master’s degree in economics from Shanghai’s East China Normal University.[2] In the 1980s, he acquired substantial experience managing state-owned enterprises (SOEs), serving as the head of the Communist Youth League committee at a state-owned petrochemical factory and later as the Party Secretary of the Dazhonghua plastics factory.[3] At the beginning of the 1990s, he was appointed as the Party Secretary of the Communist Youth League committee in Shanghai and built up his political credentials within the district-level authorities throughout the decade. From 1992 to 1995, he served as the Party chief of Shanghai’s downtown Luwan district, where he played a leading role in guiding the city’s urban makeover and transformation into a more cosmopolitan megalopolis, attracting Hong Kong property developers to help renovate several Shanghai landmarks, including Huaihai Road and Xintiandi.[4] Following his tenure in Luwan, Han became a member of the Party’s Standing Committee in Shanghai in 1997 and a vice-mayor the next year.

Han was eventually elevated to the Mayor of Shanghai in 2003, becoming the youngest individual to hold the position in half a century. In September 2006, he was appointed as the acting Party Secretary of Shanghai after his predecessor was dramatically ousted for corruption, later resuming his role as the mayor in March 2007 when Xi Jinping, the Party Secretary of neighboring Zhejiang province at the time, was transferred to Shanghai to lead the city. After having served as the mayor for a total of nine years, Han finally rose up to become Shanghai’s highest-level official following the 18th Party Congress.

Throughout more than a decade and a half spent at the helm of China’s foremost economic dynamo, Han has established a strong track record as a tried-and-tested political administrator who has overseen Shanghai’s ongoing transformation into a global financial hub as well as the early stages of its emergence as a high-tech center for innovation. Important milestones chalked off during his tenure – first as the mayor and later as the Party Secretary of Shanghai – included the staging of the World Expo in 2010, the launch of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone in 2013, and the debut of the Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect in 2014.

Addressing Shanghai’s municipal Party Congress in May, Han touted the city’s buoyant economic performance over the past five years – expanding at an annual average of 7.2% – while also cautioning that it needed to accelerate the pace of reform and innovation or run the risk of stymieing its future economic development. He noted, “Shanghai is already at the stage where it can’t advance without reform and innovation,” calling in particular for greater liberalization of the financial sector.[5]

By most accounts, the Shanghainese political supremo appears to be an especially strong candidate for the PBSC, particularly given the solidification of Shanghai’s status as one of the top springboards to higher political office over the past two to three decades.[6] There is strong precedent for the Shanghai Party Secretary to ascend to the PBSC, with the position’s alumni including leaders such as President Xi, former President Jiang Zemin, and former Premier Zhu Rongji. In addition, the fact that Han was entrusted to take over the reins of China’s economic powerhouse following the 2006 corruption scandal that toppled his predecessor clearly signaled that he was well-regarded by the national leadership and viewed as a safe and reliable pair of hands.

It is possible that his lack of governance experience across multiple provincial-level jurisdictions – usually viewed as an essential credential for elevation to the PBSC – could impose the ceiling of the Politburo on his upward mobility. However, this seems unlikely given the impressive trajectory of a multi-decade career that has been devoted to chaperoning the development of China’s largest urban commercial center. Shanghai has a longstanding reputation as one of the country’s top testbeds for reform, and, under Han’s stewardship, the city has led the way in recalibrating the country’s economic growth pattern towards a more sustainable model oriented around consumption and services – the main thrust of Beijing’s national reform agenda for the economy – all while keeping its economy humming along at a respectable clip.[7]

Looking ahead, domestic and foreign businesses should be aware that Han’s entry onto the PBSC would likely send a positive signal about the prospects for national economic liberalization unfolding at an accelerated pace in the coming years. In addition, for corporates with considerable interests in Shanghai, his elevation would mean that China’s highest governing board would then have an unabashed, lifelong champion for their city sitting at its table.

Mr. Hu Chunhua – Party Secretary of Guangdong

Hu Chunhua, the Party Secretary of Guangdong and a concurrent member of the Politburo, is widely considered to be one of the more promising candidates for induction onto the PBSC. Before taking the helm of China’s wealthiest and most populous province, Hu spent decades building up an impressive political pedigree as a hard-working administrator in China’s remote regions, particularly in Tibet and Inner Mongolia. His more recent management of Guangdong over the past half-decade has earned him plaudits from the Party’s top leadership, particularly for the southern province’s economic performance during his tenure, which appears to make him well-positioned to join the country’s supreme governing council next month.

Born in 1963, Hu grew up in a poor village in the mountains of Hubei province in central China. After graduating from the elite Peking University with a degree in Chinese literature, he volunteered to be sent to Tibet, where he worked off and on for two decades.[8] He met Hu Jintao while the future president was serving as the Party Secretary of Tibet from 1988 to 1992 and worked closely with the up-and-coming leader, who is believed to have become Hu’s patron after being deeply impressed by the highly capable young official.

During his service in Tibet, Hu was often praised by the state media as someone who would “eat bitterness,” reflecting his reputation for having a strong work ethic, and was reported to have played an important role in developing the Tibetan economy and the autonomous region’s infrastructure.[9] Hu ascended through the Party hierarchy to eventually become the deputy Party Secretary of Tibet in the early 2000s and later served briefly as the governor of Hebei province in the northeast before being promoted to the Party Secretary of Inner Mongolia in 2007. While governing the autonomous region for five years, Hu oversaw rapid growth which nearly tripled Inner Mongolia’s per capita GDP.[10]

In 2012, Hu’s reassignment as the Party Secretary of Guangdong, one of the most powerful provincial leadership roles in China, emblazoned his name on the short list of prime candidates for future elevation to the PBSC. However, he assumed stewardship of the province at a time when the economic star of China’s leading growth engine appeared to be on the wane. Its export-oriented economy had been hit hard by the global financial crisis and was facing an outward migration of manufacturers who were either moving inland or overseas due to rising land and labor costs.[11] Furthermore, Guangdong was under pressure from the rise of other coastal economies, particularly Jiangsu province, and its capital’s economic competitiveness was eroding vis-à-vis other major cities, with Beijing and Shanghai continuing to widen the gap and the northeastern port city of Tianjin closing in on Guangzhou.

After taking office, Hu set turning around the province’s declining economic fortunes and safeguarding its continued status as China’s largest provincial economy as his top priority. To do so, he focused on accelerating the process of economic restructuring, particularly by fostering greater innovation, building up advanced manufacturing and the services sector in the wealthy Pearl River Delta, and moving to address stark regional disparities that had emerged by lifting up the province’s less-developed areas. For example, he unveiled plans to provide 672 billion yuan over five years for the development of new transport infrastructure, industrial zones, and urban areas across Guangdong’s eastern, western, and northern stretches, which had not fully benefited from the Pearl River Delta’s spectacular growth.[12]

Under Hu’s management, Guangdong has retained its position as the country’s leading economic province, with its GDP reaching nearly US$1.2 trillion last year, accounting for 10% of China’s total GDP. In April, Xi gave his “full endorsement” for the Guangdong provincial government’s work over the last five years and urged it to further support national economic restructuring. Delivered in the build-up to the 19th Party Congress, the presidential commendation was interpreted by many as a strong sign of approval for Hu’s performance.

The following month, Hu addressed the provincial Party Congress in Guangdong and emphasized the need for continued reform and opening up while frankly outlining the challenges facing the province’s economic restructuring, such as persistent regional imbalances and the prevalence of low-end industries.[13] He also highlighted Guangdong’s ongoing efforts to harness innovation as a new growth engine following the country’s entry into the “new normal” of slower economic expansion.

As his highest profile posting yet, Hu’s management of Guangdong will no doubt form a critical part of the leadership’s assessment in determining whether he is raised up onto the PBSC this year. He appears to have passed the test with flying colors over the past five years, and his decades-long track record as a senior official governing some of China’s most remote and impoverished regions will also significantly bolster his prospects for further elevation.

If he succeeds in ascending to the PBSC, Hu may bring a strong populist approach onto China’s foremost governing panel given his humble family background and extensive work on poverty alleviation and bridging the development divide between the country’s wealthiest and poorest geographies.[14] Furthermore, his tenure overseeing China’s most economically liberal province could bode well for the likelihood of reforms moving ahead more rapidly nationwide after the Party Congress.

Chen Min’er – Party Secretary of Chongqing

Chen Min’er is the newly appointed Party Secretary of Chongqing, the vast centrally administered municipality of 30 million in the southwest, as well as a member of the 205-member Central Committee. After having governed the impoverished province of Guizhou for more than half a decade, Chen was reassigned to his high-profile position in Chongqing this summer following the abrupt removal of his predecessor, Sun Zhengcai, who was placed under investigation for corruption. It is widely believed that Chen – viewed as one of the president’s trusted associates – is being groomed and fast-tracked for higher office given his dramatic rise into China’s political stratosphere under the Xi administration. His new position as the Party Secretary of Chongqing virtually assures that he will be inducted onto the 25-strong Politburo at the 19th Party Congress, and there has even been speculation that he may leapfrog straight onto the PBSC and emerge as Xi’s successor-in-training.

Born in 1960, Zhejiang-native Chen attended Shaoxing Teachers College (today known as Shaoxing University) and then spent three decades climbing up the political ladder in the eastern province after his graduation.[15] He worked closely with the future president while Xi was serving as the Party Secretary of Zhejiang, his first top-level provincial posting, from 2002 to 2007. As the director of Zhejiang’s propaganda department during Xi’s service in the province, Chen reportedly oversaw the publication of Xi’s weekly columns in the provincial Party newspaper, the Zhejiang Daily.

In early 2012, Chen was moved to Guizhou, and his career appeared to go into hyper-drive when he was later promoted to governor shortly after Xi was anointed as China’s supreme leader at the end of the year. In 2015, he was further elevated to become the province’s senior-most official. Throughout his tenure in Guizhou, Chen’s main focus areas included spearheading a prominent anti-poverty campaign and building up the province’s Internet infrastructure, with the particular goal of transforming the provincial capital, Guiyang, into a cloud computing center. He also pushed through an agricultural reform program that aimed to address the fragmented nature of China’s agricultural system and improve productivity by merging small family plots into larger cooperatives, pooling together their land, capital, and labor.[16] Throughout Chen’s tenure, the central government provided billions of yuan worth of funding for Guizhou, supporting the efforts of Xi’s former subordinate to curb rural poverty and develop the local big data industry.

Nearing the end of Chen’s service in Guizhou, Xi announced in April that he would attend the 19th Party Congress as a representative of the southwestern province. Over the preceding decade, Xi had always represented Shanghai at the quinquennial Party Congresses, and his selection of Guizhou as his new electoral constituency was particularly noteworthy due to the fact that it was not his home province and he had never served as an official there.[17] The move not only signaled the president’s commitment to represent those remote regions that had not yet reaped the full benefits of China’s economic growth but was also interpreted as a big gesture of support for Chen, helping to raise the national profile of one of his top political acolytes. Chen is clearly in lock-step with the president on the urgency of eliminating extreme poverty by 2020. In March, he noted, “Meeting the targets on poverty eradication on schedule is a tough battle that Guizhou must not lose. If we lose, we’ll break our word and lose the goodwill of the people.”[18]

In July, Chen’s reassignment to Chongqing immediately ushered him into what Cheng Li at the Brookings Institution has called, “the most important sub-national decision-making body in the country,” namely the leadership of China’s four provincial-level cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing.[19] Lying on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, the southwestern megalopolis is a gateway to western China and one of the country’s largest economic hubs as well as an important spoke in the Belt and Road network. Chen’s stewardship of such a city will provide him with an almost unparalleled stage to showcase his leadership credentials in the coming years.

In short, Chen ticks all of the boxes for a political heavyweight-in-waiting just ahead of the leadership transition. His career history has been marked by a diverse set of governance experiences, including decades of service in an economically advanced coastal province as well as a long stint in a much-valued “hardship” posting managing one of China’s poorest provinces. Most importantly, Chen’s apparent status as one of Xi’s most favored protégés makes him a politician that all companies should plant on their corporate radars as one to watch in the coming years. His elevation to the Politburo is all but certain, and, however unlikely it may be, if he is indeed catapulted directly onto the PBSC at the 19th Party Congress, bypassing the typical requirement of membership on the ordinary Politburo before ascending to its Standing Committee, then he would probably be viewed as the president’s designated successor.

As mentioned earlier, Chen’s main policy priorities and preferences indicated by his regional service work have included strengthening poverty alleviation efforts and the development of Internet technologies. Although these areas are clearly already ranked near the top of Beijing’s national agenda, Chen’s presence on the Politburo and possibly the PBSC could see them absorb even more targeted central-level backing and resources in the future.

[1] Cheng Li, “Xi Jinping’s inner circle – Part 3: Political protégés from the provinces,” The Hoover Institution, Fall 2014, Issue 45.

[2] Louise Ho, “Shanghai mayor Han Zheng at the crossroads,” The South China Morning Post, 22 September 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Shanghai leader Han Zheng says city can’t advance without reform and innovation,” The Straits Times, 08 May 2017.

[6] Cheng Li, “A biographical and factional analysis of the post-2012 Politburo,” The Hoover Institution, China Leadership Monitor, Spring 2013, Issue 41.

[7] Daniel Ren, “The tenacious political survivor tipped for key economic role among China’s ruling elite,” The South China Morning Post, 03 March 2017.

[8] Cheng Li, “China’s top future leaders to watch: biographical sketches of possible members of the post-2012 Politburo (Part 3),” The Hoover Institution, China Leadership Monitor, Fall 2012, Issue 39.

[9] Teddy Ng, “Scandals haven’t slowed potential Politburo member Hu Chunhua,” The South China Morning Post, 25 September 2012.

[10] Li Jing, “Hu Chunhua eager to maintain Guangdong’s engine of growth,” The South China Morning Post, 02 February 2013.

[11] Mimi Lau, “Hu Chunhua: heading to the top via Guangdong?,” The South China Morning Post, 27 March 2013.

[12] Li Jing, “Hu Chunhua’s RMB 670 billion plan to develop Guangdong’s backwaters,” The South China Morning Post, 17 August 2013.

[13] Nectar Gan, “Reading between the lines of a Party boss’ speech as China’s power reshuffle looms,” The South China Morning Post, 23 May 2017.

[14] Cheng Li, “China’s top future leaders to watch: biographical sketches of possible members of the post-2012 Politburo (Part 3),” The Hoover Institution, China Leadership Monitor, Fall 2012, Issue 39.

[15] Goh Sui Noi, “Xi’s trusted protégé set to rise further,” The Straits Times, 24 July 2017.

[16] Chris Buckley, “After toiling in rural China, protégé of Xi Jinping joins Party’s top tiers,” The New York Times, 12 September 2017.

[17] Chun Han Wong, “In poor province, an election rich with meaning: delegate Xi Jinping,” The Wall Street Journal, China Real Time, 21 April 2017.

[18] Chris Buckley, “After toiling in rural China, protégé of Xi Jinping joins Party’s top tiers,” The New York Times, 12 September 2017.

[19] Cheng Li, “The leadership of China’s four major cities: a study of municipal Party Standing Committees,” The Hoover Institution, China Leadership Monitor, Summer 2007, Issue 21.

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