SINGAPORE: A few months before a major leadership change in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the leader of southwestern Chongqing was removed from his position amid talk of corruption and abuse of power.
The rupture caused by the dismissal of the powerful Politburo member threatened to upend the once-every-five-years Party Congress, leading to rumours of an elite party split within the secretive party.
Such a scenario captured the biggest talking point in the run up to the 18th Party Congress in China in 2012.
But even for a party known for déjà vu - such as cyclical purges of anointed successors and elite party splits - such a quick repeat of the 2012 Chongqing scandal was unexpected.
Yet, it seemed to have happened.
Five years after Chongqing boss Bo Xilai was purged in a sensational case, which even included the murder of a British citizen, the municipality’s leader Sun Zhengcai was abruptly removed from position on Saturday with no official explanation given.
The change comes some four to five months before the 19th Party Congress, which is expected to take place around October or November this year.
The Chinese state media said Mr Sun was replaced by a provincial party chief, Chen Miner, who is closely linked to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
ANOTHER CHONGQING PURGE
But foreign media reports have cited sources which said Mr Sun is under investigation by Chinese authorities.
The signs are not in Mr Sun’s favour. The official announcement of the reshuffle gave no hint of what his next job might be, which would have been the norm.
He was also absent from an event to announce his successor’s appointment, and there was no mention of Mr Sun’s work in Chongqing during the handover. Again, this goes against party protocol.
Mr Sun may yet have a soft landing, and may be moved to a smaller and less important job. But such a high-profile change months before the Party Congress looks more ominous than optimistic.
More importantly, his removal suggests the elite tussles within the CCP are expected to be more ruthless than many China watchers have expected.
Mr Sun is not an ordinary or outgoing member. At 53, he is the youngest member of the Politburo and has long been touted as one of the sixth-generation leaders slated to succeed current fifth-generation leaders Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang.
He was widely seen as a frontrunner to be promoted to the new Politburo Standing Committee at the upcoming 19th Party Congress. Some have even regarded him as a plausible candidate as future premier of China.
In fact, as recent as Friday at the FutureChina Global Forum in Singapore, several notable China analysts named him as one of the expected candidates for the new Politburo Standing Committee, along with Guangdong party chief Hu Chunhua – another sixth-generation leader.
A day later, Mr Sun lost his job with no new position in sight.
If someone of his stature could be taken down this close to the Party Congress, the intrigue within the party leading up to the seminal event is likely to be far greater than many had assumed.
After Mr Xi took on the title of “core leader” late last year, it was widely believed by observers that purges of top leaders – the so-called “tigers” – would take a break until at least after the Party Congress.
After all, the “core” status makes clear that Mr Xi has cemented his leadership and consolidated his power. It means he would also largely have a free hand to decide the line-up of the new Politburo and its Standing Committee.
But a purge of a Politburo member now suggests the reshuffles are not as straight-forward.
While Mr Xi has removed former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, Mr Sun could be the first sitting Politburo member to lose his seat since Bo. Bo was sentenced to life in prison.
There are signs that Mr Sun’s fate could be tied to Bo. In February, the party’s top corruption watchdog made an inspection trip to Chongqing and gave the verdict that the mega-city had yet to completely clear itself of the “toxic residue” of Bo’s era. In June, the city’s top police officer, He Ting, was removed from his job.
IMPACT ON SINGAPORE
Mr Sun’s departure from Chongqing could also have an impact on Singapore, which has chosen the city for its third government-to-government project – the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative (CCI).
Singapore leaders will need to build relations with Mr Chen, while likely losing the benefit of having a familiar provincial leader like Mr Sun moving on to bigger and more powerful jobs in the central government.
But the prospects of the CCI are not expected to be affected. The project has gotten the blessings of Mr Xi and manpower changes in Chongqing are not likely to thwart Beijing’s wishes – especially given Mr Chen’s close ties with Mr Xi.
Chongqing will remain a key node in Sino-Singapore ties in the years ahead. And by the look of things, Chongqing looks set to be the talk of Beijing again ahead of a major CCP leadership transition.
Peh Shing Huei is author of When the Party Ends, winner of the Singapore Literature Prize 2016, and former China bureau chief of The Straits Times. He is also a founding partner of The Nutgraf, a content marketing agency.