Asia Pacific / Politics

Rare Chinese bureaucratic shake-up reveals future leaders

Bloomberg

China’s sprawling bureaucracy is undergoing a regional reshuffle of a rare scale, with new appointments and job swaps offering hints of potential future leaders being groomed by Beijing.

At least 32 new mayoral-level officials have been appointed since Dec. 21, with 29 of them being relocated to a new province for the first time, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. The other three are being moved for just the second time. While the Communist Party has routinely relocated minister-level officials from one province to another, that’s less common among lower-level officials.

“We have almost never seen the transfer of mid-level officials between provinces at a scale this massive,” said Suisheng Zhao, executive director of the Center for China-U.S. Cooperation at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of International Studies. “Grooming the party’s talent pipeline is the most important aspect of Xi Jinping’s reform of governance modernization.”

Xi has repeatedly called for training more capable cadres and the Communist Party’s Central Committee vowed in March to accelerate that by promoting the exchange of officials across local areas, departments and state-owned enterprises. The equivalent of the party’s human resources department is overseeing the current spate of new appointments, underscoring their importance.

The personnel moves come as Xi seeks to control a nationwide economic slowdown amid high pork prices and a trade war with the U.S. The Chinese president might touch on the challenges facing the nation Tuesday evening, when he’s expected to deliver an annual New Year’s Eve address.

Since Dec. 21, when two officials from Zhejiang and Shandong in the east were sent to the predominately Muslim western region of Xinjiang, new positions have been announced every day.

On Monday, Huai’an — a city of about 5 million in Jiangsu — welcomed its new mayor, Chen Zhichang, the former head of Beijing’s Shijingshan district. Born in 1974, Chen spent his whole career in Beijing aside from a short stint in Tibet. His profile is similar to most of the cadres who were moved around this month, who spent most of their working lives in one place.

Of the 32 officials who got new jobs, 21 were born after 1970, signaling the emergence of a new generation of leaders.

Wang Liqi, born in 1977, was appointed China’s youngest mayor. He was nominated to manage Jiuquan City in Gansu, pending rubber-stamp approval by the local legislature. Since graduating from Tsinghua University with a master’s degree in engineering in 2003, Wang spent his entire political career in Heilongjiang, a northeastern province bordering Russia.

A local bureaucrat from Inner Mongolia’s Organization Department shed light on the changes when welcoming an official from Chongqing as the new mayor of the city of Wuhai.

The change in leadership was part of the Central Organization Department’s decision “to select and send outstanding cadres on cross-provincial and regional exchanges,” local media cited Sun Fulong, the director of Inner Mongolia’s Civil Service Bureau as saying Dec. 24.

Sun said the swapping of officials across regions was done to implement Xi’s instructions on bureaucratic organization and of “extreme significance to the modernization of national governance.”

Xi has repeatedly complained about a lack of drive among some local officials, and urged cadres to be more daring and take on more challenges. He warned in January that “the party is facing sharp and serious dangers of a slackness in spirit, lack of ability, distance from the people, and being passive and corrupt.”

As these reshuffles become more institutionalized, they will help “break the curse of the central government’s orders not being able to travel beyond the top leadership’s compound of Zhongnanhai,” said Zhao. “Party central wants to select people who are not only politically reliable but also have an outstanding performance record, and send them to other provinces to effectively disrupt the intertwined local interest groups.”

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