The rise of Xu Lingyi, a Xi scribe

Posts on how Chinese politics really work seem to be popular (on Twitter at least), so here’s another one, again based on the excellent Gao Xin’s ‘Night-talk Zhongnanhai’ (夜谈中南海) over at RFA (here), plus bits & pieces from me & other sources.

Today’s puzzle is how does a local leader burnish his reputation up in Beijing, enough to get factional opponents to consider him as a future national leader. And again, Mr. Gao tells the story of an unknown official who made a big difference to Xi’s rise. Comrades, meet Xu Lingyi (徐令义). Here’s him as a young man.

So Xi arrives in Zhejiang in 2002, fresh off the boat from Fujian. Here he finds Xu toiling away as the deputy director of the propaganda department (浙江省宣传部副部长). And Chen Min-er is his boss there to 2007, and he has a very special future with Xi too. Xu, a Zhejiang native, has served in the army & worked political jobs in Wenzhou. As Mr. Gao tells the story, Xu accompanied Xi on visits to Wenzhou, & Xi approved of a dude who knew how to handle a gun & a pen.

From 2003, the Zhejiang Daily starts publishing opinion pieces, usually on the front page, by 哲欣 (sounds like ‘New Zhejiang’), on how local cadres can better do “scientific development” (Hu Jintao’s doctrine), how they need to stay close to the people & avoid bureaucratism, and the importance of being uber-loyal to the Party. In August 2007, out comes the blockbuster book ‘New sayings from Zhejiang’ (之江新语), a compilation of 232 of these pieces.

The first piece is “Research work needs to be “deep, solid, detailed, accurate, effective” (“调研工作务求“深、实、细、准、效”). Chen and Xu (presumably) write most of these pieces, portraying Xi as just the sort of hands-on leader that readers of the Zhejiang Daily love. You can read more about the book here.

But local propaganda is not enough; Xi needs excellent national-level coverage too if he’s to get back to Beijing. And for that he needs Xinhua onside, particularly the local team which puts ‘internal circulation’ (neican, 内参) together. This service, run by Xinhua ‘journalists’ separately from the public copy they put out, gets circulated among senior officials. There are different levels of neican, with the most sensitive/important going to national-level leaders only.

Xinhua’s chief editor in Zhejiang at the time is Zhu Guoxian (朱国贤) and his deputy is Shen Hailing (慎海雄). Xu’s job, Mr. Gao recounts, is to make sure these two are sending blistering good copy up to Beijing. Shen must have done a particularly excellent job; he’s now running the new (est. 2018) China Media Group (中央广播电视总台), which overseas all CCTV, as well as its radio equivalents. His guiding motto: “There’s not enough Xi speeches on TV”. Here he is looking very new media.

As for Zhu, he’s also had an interesting career, but for now he’s back in Zhejiang, heading propaganda, which given where others’ have gone, suggests he got someone’s back up somewhere.

The Xinhua neican material about Xi back in the mid-2000s must have glowed. Xi ranks super-low in the 1997 voting for the 15th Congress Central Committee, suggesting he’s got a poor rep up in Beijing, perhaps due to his princeling background. We don’t know, of course, how the internal propaganda might have changed minds as the top leadership decided promotions. But it’s conceivable that it was one factor in warming opponents to Xi Jinping, a princeling who actually, it appeared to be a hard-working, trustworthy, caring-for-the-people cadre.

But back to our main protagonist, Xu Lingyi. After sterling work sweating out Xi encomium, in August 2008, the boss promotes him to be deputy secretary general (秘书长) of the Zhejiang provincial committee, and puts him in charge of the Provincial Complaints & Proposals Bureau (信访局). (A year before, Xi has moved Chen Min-er into the deputy governor slot, after which follows a rapid promotion. Chen is now of course on the Politburo, with a solid shot at the standing committee in 2022.)

Complaints & Proposals is an important department for Xi - it handles all the serious complaints that Zhejiang people have about their government. Most often & explosively, land disputes. With Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao in Beijing pushing for greater care of rural folk, the last thing Xi needs is a local case blowing up and ruining his rep with them. It’s important to spot early angry villagers who might be thinking about jumping on a train up to the capital. So Xu’s job is to make sure nothing like that happens.

In his other job, as a deputy provincial secretary general, Xu is working under Li Qiang on general government business. Mr. Gao reckons that this makes Li Xi’s ‘big secretary’ (大秘) and Xu his ‘small secretary’ (二秘). Think about these roles as a chiefs of staff; part confidante, part bag-man, part get-things-done guy. In addition to your own secretaries, you need to be very sure about these people. Xi liked Li Qiang too - he’s now Shanghai Party Secretary - and a possible future premier. Here he is.

Then, in March 2007, Xi leaves for Shanghai and then helicopters into the Politburo Standing Committee at the 17th Party Congress in 2007, and his succession to real power begins.

For which, of course, he needs help from his Zhijiang New Army (h/t to twitter-wisdom, Zhijiang is an old way of referring to Zhejiang). In August 2008, Xu gets the call to Beijing, where Xi places him as the deputy director of the State National Complaints and Proposals Administration (国家信访局), where he spends the next six years (2008-2014). We don’t seem to know what he got up to here - or, indeed, what else he got up to in Beijing for Xi.

After a brief spell as the deputy director of the Spiritual Civilization Construction Commission (perhaps necessary to get that all important deputy-minister rank?), in March 2015 Xu is appointed, without any background within the inspection/discipline CDDI system, as the commission’s representative in the Central Party General Office (中央纪委驻中央办公厅纪检组组长), the CPU-equivalent of the Party-system. Now, since the removal of Hu Jintao’s erstwhile guy, Ling Jihua, from running the General Office in 2012, after that car crash etc., it’s been led by Li Zhanshu, an iron-ally of Xi.

And by this time, of course, Wang Qishan and our old friend Zhao Hongzhu are running CCDI and the Anti-Corruption campaign. So it’s a bit strange that Xu is appointed into an arena of which Xi seems to be in control. Another politics watcher, 长安街知事, reports him saying this at a meeting shortly after arriving: “I hope that each unit will provide a list of cadres asap, with resumes attached for everyone at the director level. The next step will be to do research & listen to your reports on the implementation of the Party Integrity Responsibility System in each unit.” (“希望各单位尽快提供干部名册,司局级干部要附上简历。下一步我要开展调研,听取各单位党风廉政建设责任制落实情况汇报……”) (here).

That doesn’t sound nice. Maybe with Li Zhanshu running high-level stuff, they want to rectify the staff, throw out any old acolytes of Ling and promote the Xi loyalists.

Clearly CCDI work suits him, as a couple of years later, in early 2017, he’s made a CCDI Investigation Team Inspector (中央巡视组巡视专员), with a ministerial rank (正部长级). That sets him up to be made a CCDI deputy secretary as the 19th Congress rolls around in October that year.

It looks like his first job was in Chongqing, where he appears to have led the 11th Investigation Team. The target: Sun Zhengcai (孙政才), not one of Xi Jinping’s favorite people. Sun, an acolyte of Wen Jiabao, was on the Politburo from the 18th in 2012 and is ‘young’. Naive people at the time talked about him as a future top leader, alongside Hu Chunhua, Hu Jintao’s acolyte. (You Shu thought he was D.O.A. when he got the Chongqing job, but that’s a story for another day.)

Anyhow, Xu and CCDI in Chongqing is bad news for Sun, especially with the critical 19th Congress in October that year. The official CCDI report on the city, delivered in February 2017 is death, and that’s putting a positive spin on it.

“The leadership of the Chongqing Party Committee [i.e. Sun Zhengcai] has gotten weak, its sense of responsibility is not strong, there are gaps in learning & implementing the spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important speeches…the selection of cadres is not serious, some are even “promoted with illness” [i.e. corruption]… the eradication of “Bo Xilai/Wang Lijun”’s ideological legacy is not complete, SOE corruption situation is still serious…”(重庆市党委的领导弱化,担当意识不强,学习贯彻习近平总书记系列重要讲话精神有差距,统筹推进“五位一体”总体布局有偏差,选人用人把关不严,一些干部“带病提拔”…清除“薄、王”思想遗毒不彻底,国企腐败形势依然严峻…) (here).

I mean, tell us what you really think! And then the knockout blow: “The inspection group has also received problematic clues about some leading cadres, which have been transferred to CCDI…for handling as required. (巡视组还收到反映一些领导干部的问题线索,已按规定转中央纪委、中央组织部等有关方面处理). There was plenty of muck on Sun to dig up around his time running Shunyi District in Beijing, but putting him out in Chongqing allowed them to paint him with a bit of Bo Xilai paint.

Sun was removed from post in July 2017 and is now serving at the pleasure of the Qincheng prison governor. Hu Chunhua meanwhile is still standing - so far gaining passing marks with Xi, it seems, and still apparently in the running for Premier at the 20th. Meanwhile, more recently, Xu Lingyi was sent out with a CCDI team to Shaanxi to deal with the Qinling Mountain villas, another sensitive case for Xi.

And there we’ll end the story of Xu Lingyi, a guy who was writing copy for the Zhejiang Daily just 15 years ago and who is now very-important cadre who helped to eradicate a future premier, all in the service of his boss.