China's leadership changes: Who is Li Xi, new party chief of Guangdong

Mr Li Xi was appointed the party secretary of Guangdong province on Oct 28, 2017. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIJING - China has announced key personnel changes in the southern economic powerhouse of Guangdong and the financial hub of Shanghai over the weekend.

On Saturday (Oct 28), Mr Li Xi, 61, was appointed the party secretary of Guangdong province, replacing Mr Hu Chunhua, 54.

On Sunday, Xinhua news agency announced that Mr Li Qiang, 58, has been named the party chief of Shanghai, replacing Mr Han Zheng, 63, who last week joined the apex Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). PSC is the top decision-making body in China.

With the promotion of the two Lis, analysts say President Xi Jinping now has allies calling the shots in all four of China's municipalities - Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing.

Given his relatively young age of 61, Mr Li Xi is tipped to enter the PSC at the next Party Congress in 2022. By then, he would only be 66, younger than the informal retirement age of 68 for top Chinese politicians.

Here's a close-up look at Mr Li Xi, the new party boss of Guangdong.

Li Xi, 61

Mr Li Xi's promotion to the party secretary post in Guangdong takes him from one of China's poorest provinces to its richest.

He became the party chief of Liaoning in 2015. The rust-belt province , home to large and struggling steel mills, reported negative gross domestic product growth of minus 2.3 per cent in 2016, but the province's poor economic performance clearly did not affect Mr Li Xi's political fortunes.

Instead he was promoted to the 25-member Politburo last week and Xinhua news agency announced that he will be heading China's biggest province in terms of GDP size - Guangdong.

He replaces Mr Hu Chunhua, a protege of former president Hu Jintao. Mr Hu Chunhua could be made one of China's four vice-premiers next March or be given a party job that is respectable but does not carry much power, analyst Willy Lam told The Straits Times.

Mr Li Xi, on the other hand, will wield much influence as the party chief of Guangdong, whose gross domestic product (GDP) exceeded 7.9 trillion yuan (US$1.15 trillion) in 2016, the biggest among all provinces for the 28th consecutive year.

Mr Li Xi, who has a degree in Chinese language and literature from Northwest Normal University in Gansu's Lanzhou city and an MBA from the School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University, has spent most of his career in Gansu, one of the several "hardship regions" in China. Other hardship postings are to Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai and Guizhou.

Although he is not known to have worked with Mr Xi, he was secretary to Gansu party chief Li Ziqi, a close associate of Xi's father Xi Zhongxun, in the 1980s.

Mr Li Xi also shared the same experience as Mr Xi as a "sent-down youth" during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution years. From 1975 to 1976, Mr Li Xi was sent to the Yunping People's Commune in Gansu province to do hard labour, while Mr Xi was spent six years (1969 to 1975) at an agricultural commune in Yan'an, Shaanxi province.

When Mr Li Xi served as party secretary of the Yan'an Municipal Party Committee (2006 to 2011), he shaped the location where Mr Xi had worked as a sent-down youth into a "model village" of the Shaanxi province, according to the Brookings Institution in a write-up on Mr Li Xi.

From Shaanxi, Mr Li Xi was transferred to the east coast to work in the financial hub of Shanghai in 2011, which put him on the fast track to promotion, becoming the city's deputy party chief in 2013.

In his new role as Guangdong's party chief, he will oversee the further integration of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area, a megacity cluster which will rival the San Francisco Bay Area.

A new high-speed rail link connecting Hong Kong to the mainland's network via Guangzhou, the southern province's provincial capital, will be operational next year and a HK$117 billion mega bridge connecting Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai, a city in Guangdong, is expected to open by the end of this year.

Mr Li Xi also used to work under Mr Zhao Leji, who entered the PSC and was elected the head of the party's top anti-graft watchdog last week. Both men are part of what China watchers call the Shaanxi Gang, which made up of officials who worked previously in Mr Xi's home province of Shannxi.

Mr Zhao was Shaanxi's party secretary from 2007 to 2012.

Mr Li Xi's former post as Liaoning party chief will be taken up by its governor Chen Qiufa.

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