By Zhengxu Wang.

The 31 administrative regions of mainland China have now concluded their people’s congress meetings to install local leaderships. This completed another major step in the power transition in China following last November’s Communist Party congress. The next big step will be the National People’s Congress next month, when the new State Council will be formed.

Before and immediately after the party congress, leaked information pointed to a reshuffle of leaders in quite a few provinces, while it was rumoured that others would be headed by officials transferred from the central government.

However, the actual line-up shows that the new party leadership headed by Xi Jinping favours continuity in local leadership. In December, for example, the governors of Zhejiang, Jilin and Shaanxi were promoted to become party secretaries. And, into January, as all the provinces and regions held their congresses, all the governors elected or confirmed were locally groomed; all had served in their respective bases for a few years.

Most noteworthy was the retention of Huang Qifan as Chongqing mayor, the promotion of Yang Xiong from vice-mayor to mayor of Shanghai, and the confirmation of Li Xiaopeng as the governor of Shanxi , given that there had been intense rumours that all three positions would be assigned to officials from other places.

It had been rumoured that Hubei party secretary Li Hongzhong would take up the job of mayor in Shanghai, and Ji Lin had been tipped to replace Huang. Instead, Li will remain in Hubei, while Ji Lin stays in Beijing and was elected head of Beijing’s Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The rumoured move by Zhou Qiang , currently Hunan party secretary, to serve as president of the Supreme People’s Court, also looks unlikely now.

The fact that none of these rumours came to anything clearly reveals Xi’s preference for stability and continuity for the provinces.

Of course, inter-provincial transfers – occurring quite often under Li Yuanchao , the former head of the organisation department – have their merits. Moving cadres seasoned in managing the developed coastal economy to inland provinces, for example, has brought a supply of knowledge, ideas and socio- economic links to less developed areas.

But moving cadres around too frequently damages policy and personnel continuity, and reduces cadres’ commitment to the region they serve. Keeping cadres longer in their provinces also lowers the chances that central department officials may form unhealthy ties with local leaders. If a provincial leader senses that his career prospects rely heavily on the whims of a central department, he would certainly be keen to cultivate a patron in Beijing. Severing such prospects enables a provincial official to integrate himself more deeply into his work and the community he serves.

Xi’s team needs to strike a balance between supporting personnel continuity and policy coherence in the provinces, municipalities and regions, and the centre’s autonomy in making changes for the good of the whole.

Another striking feature of the line-up is the lack of a Xi Jinping faction. Observers had predicted that Xi would promote a large number of close allies to important positions, as Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin had done. With Xi at the helm, overseas media predicted the arrival of a “Xi army” among the ruling elite, hailing from Fujian and Zhejiang , two provinces where Xi had long stints during his rise. It was also said that Xi had built a support network among cadres originating from Shaanxi, where his family was from and where he spent several years after being sent down during the Cultural Revolution.

But the new provincial leadership line-up reveals no presence of a “Xi army”; none of the 31 regional party secretaries could be categorised as a protégé or close ally. In fact, two officials who enjoyed close early ties with Xi have been given less prominent roles. He Lifeng, Xi’s associate in the Fujian era (and reputedly best man at his wedding), emerged as head of Tianjin’s Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, instead of moving up to be mayor. And Chen Miner , who worked under Xi in Zhejiang, has become governor of Guizhou , instead of moving to serve as party secretary of Guangxi as had been rumoured.

The party has always championed the lofty “five lakes and four seas” principle in personnel affairs, meaning cadres are promoted and placed on merit, not based on their geographical origins or sectorial backgrounds.

Officially, the party still denies the existence of any factions, and says they should be contained. However, it has long been the practice for party patriarchs to promote their protégés and those from their clique of followers. This is often tacitly tolerated. But excessive promotion of people in one’s faction may invoke criticism from within the party, and damage unity.

Li Yuanchao may be a case in point. As chief of the Central Organisation Department from 2007 to 2012, he promoted many officials who originated in Jiangsu to be leaders in other regions. This caused conflict, and was in part the reason why he wasn’t promoted to the new Politburo Standing Committee.

Xi may be showing the party that he does not have a faction and does not intend to rally a small circle of loyalists to form one. He wants to send a clear signal that the party should champion meritocracy and curb favouritism. That must be a welcome development. But whether this measure can be solidified with the establishment of institutions that prevent factions forming remains to be seen.

Past experience shows that party leaders found factions handy when they tried to consolidate power. Forfeiting such a tool may be a noble act, but whether it will generate a good return can be answered only by future developments.

Zhengxu Wang is Associate Professor at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, and Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute. This piece first appeared in South China Morning Poston 19 Feb 2013, under the title “Stability First”. 

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