Possible Successor To China’s Xi Jinping Is Removed From Party Post
Sun Zhengcai, a Politburo member, rose to the Chongqing party leadership post after the scandal-plagued exit of Bo Xilai in 2012
BEIJING—China’s Communist Party placed under investigation a senior official once seen as a possible successor to President Xi Jinping, people familiar with the matter said, in a change that allowed the Chinese leader to promote an ally.
A hastily arranged meeting of party officials on Saturday in the inland city of Chongqing announced that Sun Zhengcai, the city’s top official, was being replaced and was being investigated, a person familiar with the matter said. A second person corroborated the investigation.
No further details of the investigation were given, the people said.
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State media announced Mr. Sun’s removal Saturday but didn’t provide a reason or mention an investigation. Replacing Mr. Sun as Chongqing’s party secretary is Chen Min’er, who was party chief for the southern province of Guizhou, state media reported.
Calls to the Communist Party’s personnel and investigative agencies, as well as to the Chongqing government, rang unanswered after business hours. Mr. Sun couldn’t be reached for comment; he had been recalled to Beijing ahead of Saturday’s meeting, one of the people said.
The removal of Mr. Sun comes as the party gears up for a pivotal congress this fall, providing President Xi a chance to pack top leadership bodies with allies.
President Xi, who appears assured of gaining a second five-year term as party general secretary at the congress, is also trying to sideline rivals, party insiders and analysts said.
Some party insiders have said Mr. Xi may also be trying to block promotion of anyone who could be seen as a potential successor—a move that would enhance his authority and boost his chances of remaining in office after his second term expires in 2022.
Mr. Sun is a member of the party’s Politburo—its top 25 officials—and had been regarded by party insiders and analysts as a strong contender for promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s top decision-making body, or even as a possible successor to Mr. Xi.
Mr. Sun is one of two current Politburo members who are in their 50s, making them young enough to be considered candidates for helming China’s next generation of leaders after Mr. Xi. The other is Hu Chunhua, party chief of the affluent southeastern province of Guangdong.
The official replacing Mr. Sun in Chongqing, Mr. Chen, is one of Mr. Xi’s allies, having worked with the current Chinese leader in the eastern province of Zhejiang, where Mr. Xi was party chief from 2002 to 2007.
Mr. Chen’s new post is likely to assure him promotion to the Politburo. The party secretary of Chongqing, an industrial and commercial hub astride the Yangtze River, customarily sits on the Politburo. Mr. Chen is currently a part of the roughly 370-member Central Committee, one tier below the Politburo.
Zhao Leji, chief of the party’s personnel department, announced the decision to replace Mr. Sun at the Saturday meeting. Mr. Zhao told the officials that Mr. Sun was being questioned by the party, without elaborating, one of the people familiar with matter said, adding that Mr. Chen, the new Chongqing party chief, was present at this meeting.
According to a state-media report, Mr. Chen told attendees that “firmly protecting General Secretary Xi Jinping’s core status” should be their top political priority.
Chongqing was also at the center of political intrigue ahead of the last party congress in 2012. Bo Xilai, then Chongqing party chief, made a national name for himself promoting Maoist culture, targeting organized crime and spending heavily to build up the city.
His ambitions for high office were quashed by scandal, after his wife was implicated in the murder of a British businessman. Mr. Bo was subsequently jailed for corruption and abuse of power; his wife, Gu Kailai, is serving a de facto life sentence for the murder.
Mr. Sun, named Chongqing party chief in late 2012, was tasked with cleaning up Mr. Bo’s legacy. His efforts were recently deemed inadequate by the party’s disciplinary agency, which in February criticized Chongqing authorities for failing to eradicate Mr. Bo’s “lingering pernicious influence” and curb corruption in local bureaucracy and business.