• Reuters, Bloomberg

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China has appointed former Communist Party secretary of Hubei province Li Hongzhong as the new party chief for the strategic port city of Tianjin, days after announcing a corruption investigation into the northeastern city’s former mayor.

Dozens of senior officials have been investigated or jailed since President Xi Jinping assumed power almost four years ago, vowing to go after corruption and warning, like others before, the problem threatens the party’s grip on power.

The party’s graft-busting Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said on Saturday that the mayor and acting party chief of Tianjin, 61-year-old Huang Xingguo, was suspected of “serious discipline breaches,” a euphemism for corruption.

“Huang Xingguo will no longer act as Tianjin party secretary, has been excused from his positions as municipal deputy party secretary, standing committee member, and mayor, and will be handled according to relevant laws and regulations,” the official Xinhua News Agency said. It gave no other details.

Li, 60, has been appointed as Tianjin’s party secretary, a post that outranks the mayor, and would no longer hold his positions in Hubei, Xinhua said in a short article.

Tianjin is an important port city about an hour from Beijing by car that has ambitions to become a financial hub for northern China. It is one of four conurbations — along with Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing — termed a municipality, giving it the same high status as a province.

Last month, the party announced it was investigating Yin Hailin, a longtime city planning official who became Tianjin’s deputy mayor in 2012, also on suspicion of corruption.

Huang’s fall from grace appears to have come out of the blue. On Saturday, the official Tianjin Daily covered his visit to a middle school on its front page and praised teachers for their work.

Huang’s unusually long 20-month stint as interim Tianjin leader spanned the massive warehouse fire and chemical explosions in August last year that killed at least 165 people and caused almost $1 billion in economic losses. He retained his posts even as scores of local government officials and port executives were punished for allowing the large stockpile of hazardous chemicals so close to a residential area, in violation of safety rules.

Before being sent to Tianjin in 2003, Huang spent more than three decades in the eastern province of Zhejiang, a stepping stone in Xi’s own rise and a lasting base of the president’s power. Huang led the key port city of Ningbo, overlapping with part of Xi’s five-year stint in the Zhejiang leadership where he was firstly governor and then party secretary.

“Huang didn’t lose his title in the aftermath of the Tianjin explosion, which showed there was some sort of ‘protective umbrella’ covering him,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian and political commentator. “It’s hard to say at this moment whether his case was too severe to paper over, or whether Xi wanted to use it to show that he’s ready to punish his own people if justice demands it.”

Huang is the highest-ranking former Xi subordinate to fall from grace since the president took power in 2012 and launched an unprecedented crackdown on official corruption. The investigation adds intrigue to a wave of provincial-level promotions ahead of next month’s planned Central Committee meeting, which is expected to lay the groundwork for a twice-a-decade leadership reshuffle in 2017.

Had Huang formally assumed the top job in Tianjin — China’s fourth-largest city — he would’ve been expected to secure a seat on the party’s elite 25-member Politburo. Instead, he has become the 10th Central Committee member investigated under Xi and the most senior official probed since ex-Hebei provincial party secretary Zhou Benshun was detained in July 2015.

Critics have accused Xi of using the corruption campaign as a cover to root out political rivals, though he has denied this.

Last year, a Chinese court jailed former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang for life for bribery, leaking state secrets and abuse of power.

He was the most senior Chinese official to be ensnared in a graft probe since the party swept to power in 1949.

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