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How China’s Poorest Province Became a Political Kingmaker

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China Power

How China’s Poorest Province Became a Political Kingmaker

Chen Min’er’s promotion once again signals Guizhou’s importance as a political proving ground.

How China’s Poorest Province Became a Political Kingmaker
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Guywoodland

Sun Zhengcai has lost his seat as Party secretary of Chongqing, the southwestern regional capital of both state industrial policy and Party political power, and is likely to be culled from the Politburo ranks. Chongqing’s seat in the 25-person Politburo will fall to Sun’s replacement, Chen Min’er. Sun Zhengcai, along with Hu Chunhua, are two young members of the central Politburo, only 53-years-old and allied with the Hu Jintao Shanghai clique. At the beginning of the first Xi administration they were earmarked for future Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) seats. Now the wagons have circled around Xi Jinping as the central administration looks to groom an alternate future leadership contender. But Sun being replaced by Chen is not a simple matter of personnel politics; it is tied to deeper institutional and regional power structures.

Chen is now assured of a Politburo place in the 2017 reshuffle. If not promoted directly to the PBSC this term, he will likely be there in 2022, quite possibly as chairman. He moved up to Politburo-seat-yielding Chongqing from his post as Party secretary of Guizhou, a small, industrially backward, poverty-ridden inland province in southwest China, outside or on the fringes of the Chinese state for most of imperial history. Guizhou is the “hospital pass” of provincial Party politics — mired in structural poverty, with development bottlenecks at the village-level, often below the formal public administration architecture. The urbanization that has transformed village poverty to industrial comfort in other parts of China has not so much failed in Guizhou as been designed to fail. Guizhou has been an institutionalized economic input into other provinces’ development.

So why is Guizhou the kingmaker of contemporary Party politics?

Rich in mineral and water resources, Guizhou was orphaned from coastal province growth yet formed the resource backbone for the coast’s industrial development. Through the 21st century boom it has relied on power generation and traditional industries but is littered with the corpses of wrecked cement and steel-based government projects: bridges, roads, railways, and apartment farms. However, progressive policy and poverty coexist in Guizhou; the province is a central Party policy testing ground where policy failure has little consequence.

Guizhou has also long been a Party personnel testing ground. A stint in impoverished Guizhou is a proven step backward to move forward in the central Party architecture.

Many former Party secretaries of Guizhou have gone on to take center stage in Beijing. Party Secretary Zhu Houze was a famous Guizhou native, more scholarly and literary than other Party-climbing ring-ins; he became head of the Central Propaganda Department in 1985. At the department Zhu enacted the “policy of three broads,” meaning to be broadly generous, tolerant, and relaxed in matters of public political discourse. Extended to all media this created a historical bubble of independent thought and writing under Hu Yaobang.

The most famous of all Guizhou Party secretaries is, of course, Xi’s predecessor, General Secretary and President Hu Jintao, who served as Party secretary of the province from 1985-1988.

Another former Guizhou leader, Li Zhanshu, currently the Communist Party’s General Office director, is a possibility to be promoted to the PBSC at the 19th Party Congress. Li was marked for a quick rise to power after being positioned as Guizhou Party secretary from 2010-2012, while being the only one of the 167 alternate members of the 17th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China not within the top 206 cadres of regular membership.

More recently, Zhao Kezhi, another likely candidate to ascend to Politburo in the 19th Party Congress, held stalwart positions as Party secretary of Hebei (2015 to present) and Guizhou (2012-2015), moving up directly from Guizhou in 2015 to replace Zhou Benshun, who was placed under investigation. Zhao was also Guizhou’s governor under provincial Party Secretary Li Zhanshu from 2010-2012. He has also been provincial vice governor under Zhang Gaoli in Shandong and under Li Yuanchao in Jiangsu.

Chen Min’er himself took over as Guizhou Party secretary from Zhao Kezhi. Chen cut his political teeth during a 30-year career in Zhejiang, firmly putting him at the forefront of the Zhejiang New Army, a group of Party loyalists to Xi who all emerged from the coastal province’s political nexus. While in Guizhou, Chen marshaled a cohort of Party talent, many destined for sixth generation leadership. These include Guiyang Party Secretary Chen Gang, Politics and Legal Affairs Commissar and Guizhou deputy Party Secretary Chen Yiqin, Guizhou Vice Governor Qin Rupei, and Guizhou Economic Information Commission Director Ma Ningyu. These are all personnel to watch for future central leadership positions.

Chen Gang was sent to Guiyang, the provincial capital, on a mission in 2013 to establish a big data center, to pull the province’s industrial development forward through the information communication sector. He had previously led Beijing’s Chaoyang District and set up Zhongguangcun, Beijing’s ICT innovation hub. Chen is a political climber, well positioned for a return to Beijing after his tour of Guizhou and likely to climb to Politburo level by the 20th Central Party Congress in 2022. Chen’s strategy for Guiyang has been to “overtake on the curve,” that is, to leapfrog more advanced provinces through technology.

Where previous Party policy pilots have focused on bridge-building and agricultural industrialization, the round of policy upgrades under Chen Min’er and Chen Gang focused on internet infrastructure, developing Guizhou’s capital Guiyang as a cloud computing center. Science and technology parks are the key economic institutions here and are used to do the work of coastal provinces’ special economic zones. National development zones such as Gui’an New Zone and Zhongguangcun Guiyang Science and Technology Park account for around 20 percent of domestic exports and inward FDI. It is these state economic institutions, not firms, we should watch to understand the political economy of Party economic policy and personnel tournaments in provincial China.

These technological development projects are the 13th Five Year Plan equivalent of the cement-development championed by previous Party leaders in Guizhou. And these policies create an ideal testing ground for future Party talent to compete in the provincial economic development tournament system. Against arguments that project-driven steel and cement-dependent industrial development is better than rural poverty, one of China’s key economic architects instead labelled the Chongqing model “a disaster.” Chen bet his career on a different approach, and it’s paying dividends.

Administratively, Guizhou is stuck in a patron-client relationship with the central Party apparatus. Guizhou is a policy testing ground for central experiments and projects. Any harm to the polity that any policy brings has zero impact on the legitimacy or efficacy of the central government in Beijing.

State development of the nexus between FDI, industrial output, and state industrial zones has been a core feature of the East Asia development and governance model. But nowhere is the local governance structure less responsible for policy failures at the local level nor more rewarded at the central level than in China’s public administration and its policy testing at local levels of government.

That Sun Zhengcai was to be sidelined is not news. For those paying close attention, Chen Min’er has been an obvious choice to rise quickly. Guizhou is one of the poorest provinces in China, but as a policy testing ground it is a tour of duty for those destined to climb higher in the central bureaucratic hierarchy. To get to the heart of the cadre calculus of the Party architecture, watch the industrial structure and the colocation of industrial clusters and political power.

Tristan Kenderdine is research director at Future Risk and a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science and International Relations at Australian National University.