Written by Ngeow Chow-Bing.

When Xi Jinping assumed the position of the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in November 2012, few would have predicted him to become the most powerful leader in decades, certainly surpassing his two immediate predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, and perhaps even surpassing Deng Xiaoping.

Many China scholars have come to this “strongman” view of Xi based on what he has done in the past five years. First, Xi has created more (and more powerful) bodies (called leading small groups) in several critical policy areas, such as national security, cyber security, reform’s direction, civil-military integration, and so forth, and in all these bodies Xi serves as the chairman and staffs the office personnel of these bodies with his loyal lieutenants. The traditional “collective leadership” system, in which each Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) member in charge of a particular policy area, seems to be increasingly shifting towards a “presidential” system where Xi calls the final shot. Second, Xi has successfully tamed the main contending faction, the so-called tuanpai (Communist Youth League) faction, and the faction’s purported chief representative, Premier Li Keqiang. Premier Li, in comparison to his predecessors Wen Jiabao and Zhu Rongji, appears to be the weakest Premier in history, ceding even the traditional authority in economic policy-making to Xi. Third, Xi has launched the most drastic reform of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the history of the People’s Republic. Xi would not have successfully done so without the support of the top echelon of the military. Fourth, the ongoing anti-corruption campaign (run in conjunction with the tightening of party discipline) has reigned in the once-rather-capricious bureaucracy (especially during the last five years of Hu Jintao). Through these efforts, Xi has certainly increased his level of control of the three most important institutional bodies of the People’s Republic: the party, state, and military.

However, there was one aspect of Xi’s rule that has so far escaped the attention of most China analysts: control of the provinces. Xi has fully utilised the power of personnel appointment to ensure stronger central control of the provinces. Table 1 first shows the current list of party sectaries of the provinces (inclusive of provincial-level cities and autonomous regions for the ethnic minorities), their predecessors, and their dates of inauguration.

Table 1 Current Provincial Party Chiefs and Inauguration Dates

Party Secretary / Inauguration Date Predecessor /Inauguration Date
Shanghai Han Zheng  November 2012 Yu Zhengsheng October 2007
Sichuan Wang Dongming November 2012 Liu Qibao December 2007
Fujian You Quan December 2012 Shun Chunlan November 2009
Guangxi Peng Qinghua December 2012 Guo Shengkun November 2007
Guangdong Hu Chunhua December 2012 Wang Yang December 2007
Jilin Ba Yin Chao Lu August 2014 Wang Rulin December 2012
Liaoning Li Xi May 2015 Wang Min November 2009
Hebei Zhao Kezhi July 2015 Zhou Benshun March 2013
Henan Xie Fuzhan March 2016 Guo Gengmao March 2013
Shaanxi Lou Qingjian April 2016 Zhao Zhengyong November 2012
Jiangxi Lu Xinshe June 2016 Qiang Wei March 2013
Shanxi Luo Huining June 2016 Wang Rulin September 2014
Qinghai Wang Guosheng June 2016 Luo Huining March 2013
Jiangsu Li Qiang June 2016 Luo Zhijun October 2010
Neimenggu  (Inner Mongolia) Li Jiheng August 2016 Wang Jun December 2012
Anhui Li Jinbin August 2016 Wang Xuejun June 2015
Yunnan Chen Hao August 2016 Li Jiheng October 2014
Xizang (Tibet) Wu Yingjie August 2016 Chen Quanguo August 2011
Hunan Du Jiahao August 2016 Xu Shousheng October 2013
Xinjiang Chen Quanguo August 2016 Zhang Chunxian August 2010
Tianjin Li Hongzhong September 2016 Huang Xinguo December 2014
Hubei Jiang Chaoliang October 2016 Li Hongzhong June 2010
Heilongjiang Zhang Qingwei April 2017 Wang Xiankui March 2013
Shandong Liu Jiayi April 2017 Jiang Yikang March 2008
Gansu Lin Duo April 2017 Wang Shanyun December 2011
Hainan Liu Cigui April 2017 Luo Maoming August 2011
Zhejiang Che Jun April 2017 Xia Baolong December 2012
Ningxia Shi Taifeng April 2017 Li Jianhua March 2013
Beijing Cai Qi May 2017 Guo Jinlong July 2012
Chongqing Chen Min’er July 2017 Sun Zhengcai November 2012
Guizhou Sun Zhigang July 2017 Chen Min’er July 2015

Several observations can be generated from looking into this table. First, five out of 31 provincial party secretaries (Shanghai, Sichuan, Fujian, Guangxi and Guangdong) survived the first term of Xi (November 2012 to October 2017). Second, there were three major waves of reshuffling of the provincial leaders: March 2013, August 2016, and April 2017. In each wave about six provincial chiefs were replaced. Third, 15 provinces experienced at least two changes of leadership within the first five-year term of Xi Jinping (that means at least three different party secretaries within the five years of Xi’s rule). Fourth, none of the provincial leaders have served more than five years. (Each provincial party committee has its own five-year term that is different from the schedule of the national party congress, and each party secretary is supposed to be elected by the provincial party committee, but the actual appointments or dismissals of party secretaries come from the centre, and are unaffected by the provincial terms.)

These are striking changes that shows the consolidation of the central, primarily Xi’s, control over the provinces. To make a point of comparison, there were many long-serving provincial party secretaries during both Jiang’s and Hu’s eras. For instance, in Ningxia, Huang Heng served eight years as party secretary under Jiang (1989-1997) and Chen Jianguo also served eight years under Hu (2002-2010). (In contrast, Ningxia has had three different leaders under the five years of Xi.) In Xinjiang, the legendary “King of Xinjiang” Wang Lequan served in total sixteen years under both Jiang and Hu (1994-2010). Other long serving party secretaries include Zhu Bo in Inner Mongolia (2001-2009), Cao Bochun in Guangxi (1997-2006), Liu Qi in Beijing (2002-2012), Su Rong in Jiangxi (2007-2013), Huang Ju in Shanghai (1994-2002), Li Jianguo in Shaanxi (1997-2007), Wen Shizhen in Liaoning (1997-2004). Under Xi, all long-serving party secretaries (for instance, Jiang Yikang who served in Shandong from 2008 to 2017, and Wang Min, who served in Liaoning from 2009 to 2015) were replaced and being prepared for retirement. Long-serving party secretaries, who have the potential to become entrenched local leaders, will increasingly become anomalies, if not totally eradicated.

If we look into the first full term of Jiang Zemin (1992-1997) and the first term of Hu Jintao (2002-2007), by my own calculation 17 provincial party secretaries survived Jiang’s first full term and 12 survived Hu’s first term, in contrast to Xi’s five. If calculations of the rate of turnover of provincial leadership and the average length of service of each provincial party secretary are made, it is very likely that the rate of turnover is higher and the average length of service is shorter under the first five years of Xi compared to the first five years of both Jiang and Hu.

Finally, Xi’s reshuffling of provincial leadership is crucial for him to put into places the people he trusts and relies on to carry out his vision of governance. Chen Min’er (Chongqing now, before in Guizhou), Li Qiang (Jiangsu), Cai Qi (Beijing), Liu Cigui (Hainan), Shi Taifeng (Ningxia), Du Jiahao (Hunan), Peng Qinghua (Guangxi) Chen Hao (Yunnan) all served under Xi directly or indirectly before Xi became the General Secretary. Jiang Chaoliang (Hubei), Xie Fuzhan (Hubei), Liu Jiayi (Shandong), Lou Qinjian (Shaanxi) were central officials before they were sent by Xi to head the respective provincial authorities. Xi appointed Wu Yingjie (Xizang/Tibet), Li Jinbin (Anhui), and Chen Hao (Yunnan) as party secretaries even though they are not members of the Central Committee of the CCP, which are rare occurrences. Although after the 19th Party Congress they should be awarded at least a membership in the central committee, if not Politburo. In addition, Zhang Qingwei (Heilongjiang), together with several other provincial governors (Guangdong governor Ma Xingrui, Hunan Governor Xu Dazhe, Chongqing Mayor Zhang Guoqing), were scientists and engineers within the aerospace or defence industry who were promoted by Xi (Ma was promoted before Xi); many of them are seen as the “rising stars” that will take up more provincial party secretary posts during Xi’s second term. After five years, even party secretaries who are not originally seen as Xi’s “men” now endorse Xi’s leadership strongly.

China’s central-provincial relations defy usual categories like “unitary state” or “federalism.” It is a combination of strict central control and a high degree of provincial autonomy and discretion in certain policy areas. From time to time, some provincial party chiefs emerged to build up semi-independent bases with the potential to defy (unlikely to challenge) the centre, most notoriously Cheng Liangyu in Shanghai (2002-2006) and Bo Xilai in Chongqing (2007-2012). However, it is unlikely that Xi would allow this to happen again. The provinces, like the government, party, and military, now answer to Xi loyally.

Ngeow Chow-Bing is the Deputy Director of the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya. Image Credit: CC by Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr.