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Destined for top or on his way out? Opinion split on fate of Chinese government official Zhang Chunxian

Experts are divided on whether top official Zhang Chunxian’s appointment to a group overseeing the Communist Party’s development means the end of his political rise or if he is still in the reckoning for promotion to the nation’s highest leadership.

Some believe the new appointment for the former party boss in the restive Xinjiang region might prepare him to take over the portfolio currently taken by the propaganda tsar and party affairs chief Liu Yunshan. He is a member of the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee of China’s top leaders and also heads the group that Zhang is joining as deputy.

Others, however, say the appointment to the Central Leading Group for Party Building is just a face-saving arrangement preparing Zhang for his eventual political exit next year.

Question mark hangs over future of high-profile former Xinjiang Communist Party boss

A similar semi-retired role was given to his predecessor as party chief in Xinjiang, Wang Lequan, when he was made deputy head of the central legislative and political affairs committee after his removal from the region’s top post in 2010.

The speculation comes as a major reshuffle of the country’s leadership is due to be announced at the 19th Communist Party Congress next year.

Under a compulsory retirement system, the party enclave will see five of the seven Politburo Standing Committee members, barring President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, due to step down. They include propaganda tsar Liu.

Another six members in the Politburo, the second most powerful body in the nation, will also leave office as they will all pass the compulsory retirement age of 68 in 2017. Zhang is eligible for promotion as he is only 64 next year.

His complex relations with Xi, the most powerful leader in China in the post-Mao era, have muddied the waters about his political future after the media-savvy official declined to give his open support to the current strongman president.

Zhang was asked by an overseas journalist on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress in March if he supported Xi. He only responded: “Talk later”.

His response has triggered various interpretation and theories. The speculation on Zhang’s future will only become more intense after his recent exit from such an important role in Xinjiang.

Zhang is known to be a political supporter of former president Jiang Zemin, Xi’s political rival.

He is also rumoured to have had close links with the disgraced former security tsar Zhou Yongkang. He was given a life sentence last year on corruption charges. Some critics have said the sweeping anti-graft campaign is politically motivated to wipe out Xi’s opponents.

The Hong Kong-based veteran China politics watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu said Zhang’s political future may rely on what leverage he can gain from his political patrons and connections.

“It is his political posture and what bargaining chips he has at his disposal, not his performance, that will decide whether he can be elevated to Politburo Standing Committee,” Lau said.

Analyst Zhang Lifan, however, was not upbeat about Zhang’s prospects, saying the new appointment might mark the beginning of his gradual exit from the political stage.

The former Xinjiang party chief is not trusted by Xi, according to the Beijing based political observer, citing Zhang’s close links with Jiang Zemin and Zhou Yongkang.

“It will be lucky for him if the new appointment paves the way for a safe political exit,” Zhang Lifan said.

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Zhang has a reputation for holding seemingly opposing political and ideological standpoints, according to analysts. He is known for his reform-minded approach to economics, while also adhering to relatively hardline tactics in dealing with dissidents.

He is also among the few senior Chinese officials who have been well received by overseas journalists during the annual national legislative sessions in recent years, one of the few occasions, if not the only one, that foreign press have limited access to China’s leaders.

Zhang is also known for his iron fist in the crackdown against separatists in violence-torn Xinjiang.

His appointment as the party chief of the restive region in 2010 came in the aftermath of deadly riots that left 197 dead and more than 1,700 injured in Urumqi, the regional capital, in July 2009.

Beijing blamed the unrest on Islamist militants, although rights groups argued that a Chinese crackdown on the religion freedom and culture of Muslim ethnic Uygurs was to blame for the unrest. Rights groups say Zhang has strengthened Chinese controls in the region. During his term in office, Xinjiang’s economy made remarkable progress, largely due to the huge capital investment from Beijing. However, ethnic tensions and violence continue to plague the region. Hundreds have been killed in violent clashes in recent years.

Zhang’s predecessor Wang’s failure to contain the separatist movement and end the violence ultimately led to his removal. Analysts said that Zhang has at least succeeded in his publicity campaign to improve the government’s image in the region and avoided many of the problems that plagued Wang.

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Zhang has also bolstered his forward-looking image by showing a greater interest than his party peers in embracing social media, with daily updates on his microblogging account.

He is also known for his marriage to Li Xiuping, one of state television’s most popular evening news anchors. Li met Zhang, then a government minister and a rising political star, in Beijing in 2004 on her talk show programme. They tied the knot the following year. For both, it was their second marriage.

Zhang was born in Yuzhou in Henan province in 1953. He joined in Communist Party in 1972. A engineer by training with a bachelor’s degree received from Northeast China Heavy Machinery Institute in 1980 and a master’s degree from Harbin Institute of Technology in 2002, Zhang began his career as a technocrat with the Ministry of Machinery Industry. He also worked as a general manager at the China National Packaging and Food Machinery Corporation.

Zhang joined the former Ministry of Communications in 1997 He rose to become minister between 2002 and 2005.

He served as party secretary in Hunan province from 2005 to 2010 before he was posted to Xinjiang.

Zhang’s career reached its height in late 2012 when he was elevated into the Politburo at the 18th party congress.