On Friday China’s anti-graft body announced that Wan Qingliang, the Communist Party chief of Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong Province in southern China, has been put under investigation for corruption.
A report in Xinhua said that the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced on its website on Friday that Wan is being investigated “for suspected serious violations of disciplines and laws,” a euphemism for corruption.
Although such announcements have become fairly typical in China these days among Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, Wan’s investigation is significant for several reasons. First, Wan was viewed as a rising star in the CCP. In his current position, he is essentially in charge of one of China’s most important and prosperous cities. Moreover, according to the South China Morning Post, Wan’s two most immediate predecessors went on to serve as governor of Guangdong province, China’s richest and most liberal province. SCMP also notes that in the CCP system, serving as the “the party chief of a major city or municipality traditionally paves the way into senior political circles.”
More significantly, Wan is an ironclad member of the Communist Youth League or Tuanpai political faction, which is the power base of former President Hu Jintao. Wan served as the secretary of the Chinese Communist Youth League in Guangdong province from 2000 and 2003. During the second term of Hu’s presidency, Wan—then deputy governor of Guangdong province— was the youngest of a number of Tuanpai faction members occupying top party and government posts in Guangdong province.
Even today, the party chief of Guandong province, Hu Chunhua or “Little Hu,” is seen as a protégé of former President Hu.
The decision to target Wan for corruption may therefore be a sign that President Xi is seeking to curb the influence of former President Hu. As I noted after the leadership transition in November 2012, despite the apparent defeat Hu suffered at the 18th Party Congress, the former president was well positioned to dominate the selection of the 6th generation leaders that will assume power from President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang in 2022. There have also been some reports that former President Hu and former President Jiang Zemin have begun pushing back against Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Thus, President Xi has ample reason to want to reduce Hu Jintao’s influence in the Party.
There have also been other recent signs that suggest that Xi is using his anti-corruption campaign to target Hu Jintao. Specifically, just last week the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced it was investigating Ling Zhengce, the deputy head of a government advisory body in the coal-rich northern province of Shanxi. Ling is the older brother of Ling Jihua, one of Hu’s closest aides who served as the head of the party’s general office when Hu was president.
Still, Ling Zhengce’s announcement last week didn’t raise immediate speculation that Xi is targeting Hu Jintao with his anti-graft campaign. To begin with, Ling Jihua fell out of favor among senior Party leaders after his son was killed after crashing a Ferrari he was driving in 2012. The crash also badly injured two female passengers, and the subsequent cover-up was seen as a huge embarrassment for the Party. Some therefore speculated that Ling Zhengce’s arrest was related to Ling Jihua’s downfall, and at most signaled a larger investigation targeting his younger brother.
On the other hand, the investigation into Ling Zhengce could also be explained by his position in the coal industry in Shanxi. The coal mines in the province have boomed economically in recent years and therefore became the source of widespread graft among local party officials. Thus, Ling’s investigation—which was announced alongside another Shanxi official—could easily be attributed to a larger crackdown on the mine industry in that province.
However, now that Wan has come under investigation for corruption just a week later, the possibility that Ling was targeted because of his ties to former President Hu seems much more credible. While it’s far too early to say, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign could get much more interesting in the months ahead if additional Hu Jintao allies come under investigation.