In 2012 Bo Xilai, the Communist Party leader of Chongqing, a region in the south-west, was stripped of his post, expelled from the party and later jailed. Mr Bo’s downfall cleared the way for Xi Jinping, his rival, to become the country’s leader. On July 15th lightning struck again. Sun Zhengcai, who had succeeded Mr Bo in Chongqing following a brief interregnum, was sacked.
A cloud appeared over Mr Sun in February, when party investigators accused him of failing to clear Mr Bo’s “toxic residue”. Now Mr Sun is said to be under investigation for violating party rules. His offences are unclear, but he might become the first serving member of the ruling Politburo to be booted out of that body since Mr Bo. Mr Sun is the Politburo’s youngest member and had been considered a possible successor to Mr Xi. Not since the 1980s has someone being groomed in this way been so unceremoniously purged.
Earlier expulsions from the Politburo (this would be the fourth in over two decades) resulted from eruptions of high-level infighting. Mr Sun’s downfall appears to reflect something different: Mr Xi’s methodical ascendancy. The president did not appoint Mr Sun, nor was Mr Sun close to him. But the new chief of Chongqing, Chen Min’er, is Mr Xi’s man. The two worked together between 2002 and 2007 when the president was party boss in Zhejiang, a coastal province. Mr Chen’s appointment is the culmination of a sweeping reshuffle that has seen Mr Xi appoint or promote almost all of China’s 31 provincial party chiefs in the past 18 months.
There has been no overt opposition to Mr Xi’s amassing of ever-greater power. Officials queue up to praise him, while critics are reduced to posting online pictures of Winnie-the-Pooh, whom the president supposedly resembles. Such images were duly banned by China’s censors this week.
But disquiet about Mr Xi’s grip has turned the unlikely figure of Guo Wengui, a Chinese billionaire who lives in exile in New York, into a person of political significance. In a series of tweets that are eagerly discussed in China (and indignantly dismissed by the state-run media), Mr Guo has thrown explosive and unproven accusations against the family of Mr Xi’s closest ally, Wang Qishan, who is leading an anti-corruption campaign. Mr Guo, who also called Mr Sun “a genius among geniuses” (perhaps hastening his fate), has his supporters. Police recently arrested two people in the aviation industry who allegedly provided Mr Guo with information from Hainan Airlines about well-connected passengers. The carrier is owned by HNA, a conglomerate at the centre of Mr Guo’s claims about Mr Wang’s family. HNA is suing Mr Guo for defamation.
Mr Guo’s assertions do not seem to have damaged Mr Wang. On July 17th a long article by Mr Wang in the party’s flagship newspaper, People’s Daily, denounced “insufficient efforts to strictly enforce party discipline.” It does not sound as if his authority is weakening, though whether he will stay in office after a five-yearly party congress due this autumn is another matter. According to the party’s unwritten rules he should retire (he is 69).
The bigger question is how long Mr Xi will stay on. By convention, he should step down as general secretary in 2022. His likely successor would be expected to emerge at the party congress. Getting rid of Mr Sun doubtless makes it easier for Mr Xi to pick whomever he chooses. But his power is now so great that it is getting harder to imagine anyone else in charge. Odds are growing that he will try to keep his job after 2022, or appoint a placeman and rule China from behind the scenes. He would hardly be the first leader to do that.