Being mayor of Beijing does not necessarily mean a shortcut to the top of Chinese power. Chen Xitong, mayor of the capital between 1983 and 1993, knew a little about this.
Chen, who was leader of the “Beijing clique,” branded the movement that took over Tiananmen Square in 1989 as “counterrevolutionary,” which triggered the military intervention. (At least he expressed his regrets later.) He ended up in the clutches of zealous anti-corruption officials, probably led by his bitter enemy Jiang Zemin. Or so the rumors said. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison and died in June 2013. The Chinese leadership, liturgical to a breaking point, announced his death on the anniversary of the events in Tiananmen.
Chen’s case should not worry Cai Qi too much. Since November, Cai has been the mayor of Beijing. In fact, Chen was quite unpopular with the powers of the time, while Cai, on the contrary, is recognized as a great ally of the current No. 1 of the Chinese Communist Party (among other institutions), Xi Jinping. In fact, it seems that his rise to the role of first citizen of a city as complex as Beijing was the result of his tight alliance with Xi. That’s how China works: Officials who have made a career together often see their destinies linked.
And right now being on Xi’s bandwagon, or the “party within the party,” could be a guarantee to join the circle of the most powerful men in China: that is, the Central Office of the Politburo of the Communist Party. This year, probably in November, Congress will have to pick the five, or seven, names that will join President Xi and Prime Minister Li Keqiang in the next five years.
Cai is not a rookie. Before becoming mayor of Beijing, after a public career in Zhejiang, he was appointed (by Xi) in November 2014 as head of the national security committee, a body convened by the leader himself. At the time, according to sources quoted by the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post, “Cai was appreciated by Xi when he was a deputy director of Fujian province’s political reform office in the early 1990s.” Sure, because Cai worked in the Zhejiang region for nearly 15 years, building a brilliant career after becoming mayor of Quzhou in 1999.
Before that, he worked in Fujian, the province where he was born in 1955. It is no coincidence that the current president and secretary and “core” of the CCP worked in Fujian and Zhejiang in the period between 1985 and 2007.
In addition to his reputation as a reformer, although his fortune has been linked to the boss’ approval, Cai is famous in China for using social media. In 2013, at the end of the CCP Congress, he was promoted. Cai was the first officer to communicate the end of his term via Weibo: “Comrades, I’ll see you online,” he wrote, announcing the end of his role as head of Zhejiang’s personnel department. Two days later, he was appointed governor of the region. During his life on social media, he has attracted over 10 million followers, showing great familiarity with the media.
With a great personality, he has distinguished himself over time as a practical politician and determined to solve problems. To a mother who contacted him on Weibo to complain that her son was forced to drink alcohol to please his boss (a fairly common practice in Chinese companies), he replied, “Where does your son work? Obviously, he must stop drinking.”
Then, he had to tell his followers that he would abandon them for a while. His new role as head of the security committee would not allow him to use social media with the same swagger as before: national security issues, of course. And finally, in November he was appointed as mayor of Beijing. On his first public appearance in January, he talked about the problems of the city. During a conference on the critical issue of pollution, Cai announced his plan to combat the suffocating smog through the creation of an odd-sounding “anti-pollution police.”
There are already rumors about him as a potential member of the CCP Central Office for the election in November. Undeniably, he and Wang Qishan, the head of the anti-corruption committee, are considered to be on the rise. So long as the new position doesn’t lead to new problems.