Canton Tower in Guangzhou, capital of south China's Guangdong Province. (Xinhua/Liu Dawei)

OPINION – Leadership Change in Guangzhou and Guangdong: Political and Personnel Implications

The recent leadership reshuffle in the Guangzhou city and the Guangdong province has significant political implications for both places, indicating a pattern of transferring officials from the Guangdong province to assume the leadership of Guangzhou and rotating cadres from Shenzhen and Zhuhai to take over the leadership position in Guangzhou and Guangdong.

On December 3rd, 2021, Guangzhou city’s party secretary Zhang Shuofu, who had been born in Hunan in 1965, was replaced by an executive vice governor of the Guangdong province, Lin Keqing. Lin Keqing was born in Hubei in 1966 and worked in Beijing’s Daxing district as a party secretary from 2008 to 2013. He became the deputy party secretary of the Guangdong province from 2019 to 2021. 

On the same day, Guangzhou city’s mayor Wen Guohui was also replaced by Guo Yonghang, who was the Guangdong province’s deputy governor and who became Guangzhou city’s deputy mayor and acting mayor. Guo’s appointment was formally approved by a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Guangzhou Municipal People’s Congress, which accepted the resignation of Wen Guohui who had served as the mayor of the Guangzhou city from 2016 to late 2021. 

Wen had been born in Jiexi County, Guangdong, in 1963 and worked in Shanwei city as party secretary in 2013 before he was sent to work in Guangdong provincial government in 2015. 

As a vice-provincial city, Guangzhou witnessed two top leaders being replaced on the same day – a phenomenon that aroused the immediate concern and political sensitivity of mainland observers. 

Guo Yonghang was born in Shandong in 1965 and worked in the Shenzhen municipal government from 1989 to 2018, when he was then appointed as the Zhuhai city’s party secretary. 

Guo Yonghang, a vice Governor of Guangdong province, has been appointed vice mayor and acting mayor of Guangzhou. Photo by: Beijing Normal University-Hong Kong Baptist University United International College (UIC).

Both Lin Keping and Guo Yonghang were northerners born outside Guangdong. Their appointments as the Guangzhou city’s new leaders can be interpreted as a sign that the central authorities usually appoint northerners to lead Guangdong – a move that encourages lateral transfer from other provinces to accumulate more administrative experiences for provincial leaders while minimizing “local kingdomism” by relying on Guangdong-born cadres to lead Guangdong. 

The regionalism of Guangdong-born officials became a concern of the central authorities when Wan Qingliang was appointed as the Guangzhou mayor in 2010 until 2014 when he was stripped of his position due to corruption and abuse of power. Wan was expelled from the party in October 2014. His corruption scandal cast a shadow on the Guangdong-born officials, who arguably must now behave well and perform much better to re-earn the political trust of the central authorities in Beijing.

On December 9th, the mass media in Hong Kong reported that the sudden reshuffle of Zhang Shuofu and Wen Guohui in Guangzhou city was attributable to not only the politics of removing Banyan trees (rongshu) in the city, but also perhaps the problematic way in which the Evergrande Group’s financial management was handled by Guangzhou.

In May 2021, a former deputy mayor of Guangzhou city, Lin Daoping oversaw urban construction and environmental protection, but he was then transferred to be the party secretary of Yangjiang city and later dismissed on the grounds that another arrangement was made. It was reported that Lin had been held responsible for cutting a large batch of Banyan trees in Guangzhou city – a move that aroused the anger of many citizens in the city and that led to the complaints of a few retired Guangzhou officials to the central government in Beijing. 

Alarmed by the Guangzhou move to cut Banyan trees, the top leaders in Beijing were unhappy with the ways in which Guangzhou city was governed. Rumors were rife that the President Xi Jinping commented on the Guangzhou leadership with 12 words in Chinese: “unscrupulous, reckless, and extremely foolish.”

Eventually, ten officials in the Guangzhou city were disciplined, transferred or demoted after thousands of Banyan trees were cut down. Media reports said that the central leadership has been attaching great importance to sustainable development and environmental protections. Yet, the Guangzhou city’s move of cutting many Banyan trees on the grounds that the trees’ overgrown roots might sabotage roads and underground pipes was clearly negligent and improper, especially at a politically sensitive time when China has been positioning itself as a global environmental protector.

Lin Keqing, newly appointed secretary of the CPC Guangzhou Municipal Committee

Another possible reason for the removal of the top Guangzhou leaders was the complexity of financial mismanagement on the part of Evergrande and perhaps some Guangzhou leaders. Evergrande was once a top property developer in China with more than 1,300 real estate projects. It has been enmeshed in financial crisis. On November 19th, 2021, the Hong Kong Hang Seng China Enterprises intended to delist the Group. Immediately the Guangdong provincial government sent a work team into the Group. The role of the Guangzhou leadership in the Evergrande crisis was unknown, but the media speculated that the Guangzhou leadership reshuffle was attributable to the financial crisis of the Evergrande Group, whose business expansion in the past might be due to the political support and patronage of Guangzhou.

On December 25, 2021, the central government announced that Ma Xingrui, the Governor of Guangdong province, would become the new party secretary of Xinjiang and he would replace Chen Quanguo, who had been dealing with Xinjiang’s social stability successfully. 

On December 27, 2021, the Standing Committee of the Guangdong National People’s Congress met and appointed Shenzhen city’s party secretary Wang Weizhong, who is 59 years old, to be the acting Governor of the Guangdong province. Wang was appointed as the Shenzhen party secretary in 2017. When President Xi Jinping visited Shenzhen in 2021 to mark the 40thanniversary of Shenzhen’s development as China’s first special economic zone, he praised the achievements of Shenzhen. 

Wang’s appointment could be seen as a move in which the central government recognized his work and contribution to Shenzhen’s rapid and impressive economic development. In fact, since the Greater Bay Area (GBA) plan was published by the central government, Shenzhen has been positioned as the economic powerhouse of the GBA and obviously overtaking the role of Guangzhou city in the rapid economic integration and technological development in Southern China.

Wang has been seen as a rising star in Chinese politics. In 2014, he was sent by the central government to Shanxi amid corruption scandals in the province. Wang became a member of the Shanxi provincial party committee in September 2014 and the party secretary of Taiyuan city in 2016.

The recent appointment of Ma Xingrui as the new party secretary of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region was politically significant. It meant that a top leader of the Guangdong province can be promoted to assume an even more politically important position. Soon after his new appointment to Xinjiang, the 62-year-old Ma said that he would follow the central government’s policy of maintaining the long-term stability and high-quality economic development of Xinjiang.

Ma’s track record was impressive. Born in Heilongjiang province, Ma earned a doctorate in mechanics from the Harbin Institute of Technology. He joined the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1988 and became a vice-dean in the Chinese Academy of Space Technology in 1996. In 2003, Ma was appointed the chair of the Sino Satellite Communications Company. Ten years later he became the director of the China National Space Administration. He worked in Shenzhen as a party secretary from 2015 to 2016, and he was promoted as Guangdong’s governor in January 2017. His expertise and knowledge in space technology, satellite communications and economic development mean that the new position in Xinjiang will perhaps have a new mission while maintaining the socio-political and economic stability there.

Ma Xingrui, former Guangdong governor, has been appointed as new secretary of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Regional Committee of the CPC

Historically speaking, Guangdong’s leadership positions could be politically significant. President Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, had been the Guangdong province’s party secretary from 1978 to 1980 before he was appointed to work in the Central Secretariat in March 1981. After his retirement in 1993, Xi Zhongxun often resided in Shenzhen. Xi Zhongxun contributed immensely to Guangdong’s economic development; in 1978 he lobbied the central government for greater economic authority to be given to Guangdong to open its economy. In support of Xu, the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979 allowed Guangdong to establish special economic zones, thereby opening the door for Guangdong and later Shenzhen to develop rapidly and successfully.

As his father had developed great interest in the economic development of Guangdong province, President Xi Jinping naturally pays close attention to the development of the province, including the cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen. President Xi’s southern visits to Guangdong in 2012 and 2020 proved that he remains deeply interested in the province’s socio-economic development.

In conclusion, the most recent leadership changes in Guangzhou and Guangdong have illustrated not only the transfer of Guangdong provincial officials to take over the leadership positions in Guangzhou, but also the shift of Shenzhen and Zhuhai officials to lead both Guangzhou and Guangdong. It seems that the Guangdong-born officials are under observations as the central concern about regionalism could be one of the factors shaping leadership reshuffle, especially after the Wan Qingliang corruption scandal in Guangzhou. Other factors shaping the recent leadership reshuffle in Guangzhou include the mismanagement of Bayan trees on the part of Guangzhou officials and perhaps the city’s financial supervision of the Evergrande Group. On the other hand, the promotion of Ma Xingrui from the Guangdong leadership to Xinjiang shows that Guangdong’s political leaders, if performing well and impressively, can be a step further to take over politically important positions in other provinces and cities.