When Li Hongzhong was announced as Tianjin’s new Communist Party boss earlier this month, mainland journalists’ began recirculating jokes about his infamous seizure of a reporter’s voice recorder six years ago after she confronted him with a sensitive question.
But political analysts speculate the posting could signal the 60-year-old is the among first front runners for promotion to the party’s key decision-making Politburo in a leadership reshuffle scheduled for late next year.
In March 2010, when Li was attending the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in Beijing as governor of Hubei Province, a mainland journalist asked him about a case in which a waitress in Hubei killed a civil servant who sexually harassed her.
Li, caught by surprise, lost his temper in front of the journalists surrounding him, seized the reporter’s recorder and said: “Which media are you with? … Why are you always dwelling on this case?”
The controversy did not derail Li’s rise through the party ranks and he was promoted to Hubei party secretary a year after the incident.
Now, as the new party chief of the centrally controlled municipality of Tianjin, described by some as a “city with no news” due to its heavy censorship, Li is being viewed as the first member-in-waiting of the new Politburo to be formed next autumn.
“Chinese cadres’ appointments are decided by the party, not the people,” said Chen Daoyin, an associate professor at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. “The seizure of the digital recorder looked terrible to the public, but that might be seen as a gesture of loyalty to the party.”
Six of the seven non-acting party chiefs in Tianjin in the three decades before Li’s appointment went on to secure Politburo membership.
Born in Shenyang, the capital of the northeastern province of Liaoning, in 1956, Li tapped into a key political network very early in his career. After graduating from Jilin University with a degree in history in 1982, he served as secretary to Li Tieying for five years, during which time the elder Li, no relation, served as Shenyang party chief, Liaoning party secretary and then minister for electronics industry, succeeding future party general secretary Jiang Zemin.
At the ministry, the younger Li met Jiang’s former secretary, Huang Liman.
Li Tieying began three consecutive five-year terms as a Politburo member in 1987 and a year later his protégé was reassigned to Guangdong, where he worked under Huang for 10 years, eventually rising to the powerful position of Shenzhen party boss.
Known for his close ties to Jiang’s faction, Li Hongzhong has repeatedly stressed his loyalty to party general secretary Xi Jinping in the past three years and was among the first few regional party bosses to publicly push for the formal naming of Xi as the “core” of the party early this year.
He was also among the very few regional chiefs to pen an article about his understanding of Xi’s book Zhijiang Xinyu, calling it a “glorious chapter” of Marxism. The article was published in the party mouthpiece People’s Daily in 2014.
In recent years, Li Hongzhong has been among the provincial chiefs most trusted by the central leadership. He was one of only two provincial chiefs to participate in the drafting of a hallmark document on comprehensive reforms in 2013, according to state media.
Last year, under his watch, Hubei courts were trusted with staging the trials of close allies of former security tsar Zhou Yongkang, the most senior official probed for corruption since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.
But Chen said Li still remained outside Xi’s innermost circle of trust.
“The harder he tried to show open allegiance to Xi, the clearer that he’s not close to him,” Chen said, adding that a lot of cadres closely connected to Xi had not staged such open shows of loyalty.
“He is a man accepted by all factions … there are people closer to Xi but who were not chosen for the [Tianjin] position,” Chen said. “It shows that despite Xi’s strong hold on control over cadres’ appointments, he still has to make compromises.”