News analysis

Will the virus claim a political victim in Beijing's party boss?

But analysts note Cai Qi has acted swiftly in curbing infections, and he is also President Xi's protege

Beijing's Communist Party secretary Cai Qi, who outranks the city's mayor, has the unenviable job of running China's sprawling capital, where political waters run deep.

The city is home to the headquarters of the party, the Cabinet, more than 20 ministries, the Central Military Commission, Parliament and its advisory body, courts, a plethora of giant state-owned enterprises, some of the country's top universities and hospitals, the China offices of multinational corporations, foreign embassies and the bureaus of foreign media outlets.

So when a cluster of coronavirus infections was discovered in Xinfadi wholesale food market in the south-western district of Fengtai two weeks ago, pressure to protect the city - the heart and political centre of the country - was greater than anywhere else.

A historian who lectures at a Beijing university likened running Beijing to working under the nose of the emperor.

"Since around the Ming dynasty, it's been extremely difficult to (work) under the feet of the 'son of heaven'," the historian said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Beijing is referred to as being "under the feet of heaven".

"Keeping the emperor company is like keeping a tiger company," the historian said, quoting a Chinese proverb.

Beijing was the capital of five dynasties, including the Yuan or Mongol empire (1271-1368), the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and the Qing or Manchu empire (1644-1911), China's last dynasty.

Today, Beijing has a population of more than 20 million with an area of 16,808 sq km - about 23 times the size of Singapore.

In the aftermath of the Xinfadi outbreak, at least two district officials were removed, as was the market's general manager.

Such purging has become standard fare across provinces and cities as pressure is heaped on officials at all levels to curb the coronavirus. When the city of Wuhan and the province of Hubei struggled to contain the outbreak, their party chiefs were swiftly sacked.

Some have wondered about the political future of Beijing party boss Cai, even as officials have taken pains to assuage fears, saying just this week that the outbreak in the capital is under control.

Yesterday, the country's health authority reported 13 new cases in Beijing out of 19 cases nationwide.

There have been 269 cases of infections in the city since June 11, when the first case was reported.

A mass Covid-19 testing site in Beijing on Wednesday. Infectious disease experts say the city's swift response at the beginning of the outbreak has made a difference in keeping the case numbers low.  PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Infectious disease experts say Beijing's swift response at the beginning of the outbreak has made a difference in keeping the numbers low, compared with Wuhan's delayed reaction to the cluster at the Huanan seafood market there in December.

When inspectors detected traces of the coronavirus on a chopping board for imported salmon at the Xinfadi market two weeks ago, Mr Cai did not hesitate to order the city's largest vegetable wholesale market shut on June 13.

Declaring that the city had entered "wartime emergency mode", he also directed the swift mass testing of the more than 10,000 vendors who work at the market, sealed off residential estates nearby and suspended schools in the area.

Contact tracing kicked in, and as the infection numbers continued to grow each day, more districts were classified medium risk and stringent social distancing measures reinstated.

The city's army of restaurant workers, food delivery riders and couriers were also put through tests, while supermarkets, eateries and grocery stores were all made to disinfect their premises.

Beijing's Communist Party secretary Cai Qi, who outranks the city's mayor, is one of China's 25 most powerful men. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

To cope with the growing demand for tests, the authorities also set up a pop-up lab that could process up to 30,000 samples a day.

Earlier this week, health officials said they had already tested more than two million people between June 12 and Sunday, and Beijing's testing capacity has been ramped up from 40,000 a day to more than 300,000.

Even some low-risk districts have mandated that their residents should be tested.

Sporting events were suspended and bars in Sanlitun, known for its nightlife scene, were ordered shut.

When asked if Mr Cai may face political repercussions over the outbreak, a source who has known him for decades told The Straits Times: "The new cases are not his fault. The new outbreak is not something he can control."

In 2003, Beijing's mayor was sacked for covering up the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars. In 1995, the city's party boss was purged for corruption, but pundits suspect it was a run-in with then President Jiang Zemin that led to his downfall.

Mr Cai does not have that problem. He is a protege of President Xi Jinping, who doubles as party and military chief.

The two men's political careers overlapped in the south-eastern province of Fujian in the 1990s. Mr Cai followed Mr Xi to the eastern province of Zhejiang in the 2000s, and was the President's right-hand man at the National Security Commission from 2014 to 2016.

After a short stint as Beijing mayor, Mr Cai became the city's party boss and joined the party's decision-making Politburo at the 19th congress in 2017, making him one of China's 25 most powerful men.

But Mr Cai is no stranger to controversies. In 2017, he came under fire on social media for evicting thousands of migrant workers from their makeshift homes in the middle of winter and forcibly tearing down building signs as part of a campaign to give Beijing a facelift.

"Xi was not happy, but Cai Qi survived," the source said.

At age 64, Mr Cai is eligible for further promotion to the party's Politburo Standing Committee - the pinnacle of power in China - at the party's 20th congress in 2022.

Whether he makes it hinges in part on his handling of the pandemic, pundits say. But in Chinese politics, patronage is more important than competency and incorruptibility.

So far, there is no indication of displeasure from Mr Xi.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2020, with the headline 'Will the virus claim a political victim in Beijing's party boss?'. Print Edition | Subscribe