Why Has Shanghai Become China’s Political Hotbed?

China’s Game of Thrones, the 19th Party Congress is about to begin. Reasonably, China watchers have set their sights on Beijing, the political hub. However, more attention should be directed towards another politically important city, Shanghai.

“Shanghainese politics”should be treated as an essential subject for China-studying students, because the city has served as a political hotbed for decades. In the past thirty years, several bureaucrats made their way to Beijing from Shanghai, and a majority of them went on to hold high positions within the party and/or within the central government. Among those that made the transition from Shanghai to Beijing, two names stand out: Jiang Zemin and Xi Jinping. Both were previously Party Secretaries of Shanghai and went on to wield ultimate power in Zhongnanhai. Beginning with Jiang Zemin, all of Shanghai’s Party Secretaries, except Chen Liangyu (who was dismissed due to corruption charges) and Han Zheng (whose fate will be revealed in mid-October), have ultimately stepped into the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), China’s de facto powerbase. They are Jiang Zemin (1987~1989), Zhu Rongji (1989~1991), Wu Bangguo (1991~1994), Huang Ju (1994~2002), Xi Jinping (2007) and Yu Zhengsheng (2007~2012).[1]

Some other informative examples are listed below:

Zhang Chunqiao (张春桥): Party Secretary of Shanghai from 1971 to 1976. Promoted to the PSC in 1973.

Zeng Qinghong (曾庆红): Deputy Party Secretary of Shanghai from 1986 to 1989. Promoted to the PSC in 2002.

Chen Zhili (陈自力): Deputy Party Secretary of Shanghai from 1989 to 1997. Promoted to the Vice Chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in 2008.

Huang Qifan (黄奇帆): Deputy Secretary-General of Shanghai from 1995 to 2001. Promoted to the Vice-Chairman of the Financial and Economic Committee of the National People’s Congress in 2017.

Meng Jianzhu (孟建柱): Deputy Party Secretary of Shanghai from 1996 to 2001. Promoted to the Secretary of the Committee of Political and Legal Affairs of the CPC Central Committee in 2012.

Yang Xiaodu (杨晓渡): Secretary of Shanghai Commission for Discipline Inspection in 2012. Promoted to the Minister of Supervision in 2016.

Ding Xuexiang (丁薛祥): Secretary of the Committee of Political and Legal Affairs of Shanghai from 2012 to 2013. Promoted to the Deputy Director of the General Office of the CPC Central Committee and the Director of the General Secretary Office in 2013.

Cao Jianming (曹建明): President of East China University of Political Science and Law from 1997 to 1999. Promoted to the Procurator-General of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate in 2008.

While it is easy to conclude that Shanghai is a fertile seedbed for future high-level bureaucrats, with steady streams of Chinese officials have leaving political legacies in Shanghai before moving on to Beijing, some key questions remain: Why is Shanghai so politically important? Why has Shanghai become a political hotbed to rival Beijing? Why are the “dock politics”(matou zhengzhi) prevailing in the central leadership today?[2] Arguably, China’s meritocratic political selection mechanism, the upward delivery of private goods, the successful political signaling, and the strong patron-client chain might be counted as explanatory variables.

First, the Communist Party has traditionally appointed competent officials to high office. China’s astounding economic performance suggests politicians able to encourage economic growth will be selected to steer the state apparatus. Usually, those who manage to reach the “hard target”(ying zhibiao) and are conducive to development will be conferred political rewards. One classic example is that two individuals appear in the proverb “If you want to eat rice, look for Wan Li. If you want to have grain, look for Ziyang”(要吃饭赵紫阳), Wan Li (then-Party Secretary of Anhui) and Zhao Ziyang (then-Party Secretary of Sichuan), were promoted to the Party Central soon after they mitigated the famine crisis. Zhu Rongji, shortly after becoming Party Secretary of Shanghai in 1989, set the “shopping basket program”(cailanzi gongcheng) as his priority, aiming to enlarge the subsidiary food supply and enrich food varieties for the citizens. His efforts were fruitful; Shanghai finally built a modern subsidiary food production, purchase, and sale system. In addition, China’s historically popular vehicle Santana was also founded and manufactured in Shanghai; another of Zhu’s milestone projects during the process of opening up and developing the Shanghainese economy. Seen in this light, Zhu’s vast strides toward Beijing were well-deserved.

On top of that, being economically successful at the regional level also implies more revenue flow to the party elites in Beijing. Tax revenue from the provinces was, and is currently, used by China’s political leaders to support their winning coalitions in an effort to keep party members loyal. In this way, China’s authoritarian regime maintained prolonged political stability. The man of merit at the local level, on the other hand, would be smiled on by the party leaders in Beijing. This scenario is notably true after China launched its tax-sharing reform in 1994 (fenshuizhi gaige). Fiscal recentralization was the main theme of this campaign. To stem the fiscal decline and acquire adequate revenues, the central government urged localities to transfer the bulk of its tax revenue to Beijing. Based on the aforementioned logic, it is reasonable to infer officials in the economically prosperous Shanghai were more likely to be promoted simply based on the large amounts of tax revenue they could send to Beijing.

Third, most Shanghainese officials are politically astute and able to signal their intentions at the right time. The Chinese regime is comprised of vertical functional system (tiaotiao) and horizontal lines of authority (kuaikuai). The former is usually more important because policy implementation in reality relies on the officials at the lower tiaotiao. China’s unique political ecosystem therefore makes the principal-agent analysis possible. In the context of China, the principal (upper tiaotiao) are the central leaders, whereas the agent (lower tiaotiao) are local officials. Because of information asymmetry, the principal cannot oversee the agent’s performance all the time; those who are capable of releasing credible political signals at the right time can easily catch the principal’s attention and come out ahead of their peers. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, to keep pace with Mao Zedong’s call for the seizure of power of local party organizations, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen whipped up the January Storm (yiyue fengbao) in Shanghai, and successfully exhausted the established apparatus. Wang Hongwen’s efforts stood out, and was appointed as the Vice-Chairman of the Party by Mao. Another case involves then-Party Secretary of Shanghai Jiang Zemin. In 1989, Jiang’s astute handling of the World Economic Herald incident was noticed by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Jiang then rocketed up to the position of Party General Secretary very smoothly. The latest anecdote concerns Shanghai’s current Party Secretary Han Zheng. In July, Han Zheng cycled along parts of the new sections of Huangpu riverfront, which includes paths for friendly for walking, running, and cycling. Huangpu Riverfront is Han’s attempt to advance his political career (zhengji gongcheng). By transmitting credible signals of his willingness to improve the livelihoods of ordinary people to party leadership in Beijing  right before the start of the 19th Congress, he might succeed in claiming a ticket in the PSC as the Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a guess held by many observers.

Finally, once promoted to Beijing, the newly elevated leaders from Shanghai joined the “Shanghai faction”and tended to recruit their former clients to positions in Beijing, thus ensuring a steady stream of party leadership positions were filled by Shanghainese party members. The top concern for the leader of a Leninism vanguard party is survival. To prevent threats of being ousted or defeated by challengers who attempt to depose him, the leader of an authoritarian regime is inclined to have loyal subordinates or former clients surround him. This ensures that he can build up his political power over the remainder of the selectorate. Usually, the connections between patrons and clients are generated if they work in the same branch of the Party or government at the same time. Having worked together to an extent increases the possibility of engendering loyalty or being in close contact with each other. In the example of Shanghai, Jiang Zemin promoted his Shanghainese colleagues and subordinates Zeng Qinghong, Zhu Rongji, Wu Bangguo, Chen Zhili, Huang Ju, and created his “Shanghai gang,” whereas Xi Jinping brought his secretary at Shanghai Ding Xuexiang to Beijing as the Director of the General Secretary Office. This might also explain why Shanghai is the springboard and why the “dock politics” are still overwhelming within the central leadership.

In a nutshell, these four factors contribute to Shanghai’s role as the regime’s political hotbed. Meanwhile, they prove that people’s prediction of the current Shanghai czar Han Zheng’s destiny is not groundless. As a critical political barometer, Shanghai is never negligible in the contemporary Chinese politics analysis.

[1] The time span in the parentheses indicates the term as the Party Secretary of Shanghai.

[2] Here, the dock refers to Shanghai.


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Chutian Zhou

Chutian Zhou has a multidisciplinary background in journalism, finance, political science, and data science. He graduated from the School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS), UC San Diego in 2017, and later obtained his second Master’s degree from Columbia University with a focus on quantitative social science. His thesis examines non-violent tactics used by the Chinese leader to pre-empt domestic political challenges. At GPS, Chutian's interests lie in Chinese elite politics, cross-strait relations, and methodology. He is now based in New York working as a data analyst.

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Reuters / Dale De La Rey