The author is a student of SAIS who has requested to stay anonymous.
Every issue, the SAIS Observer presents a World Leader Profile of someone you have probably heard of but may know little about. After an astonishing promotion to the Politburo at the 19th Congress of CCP in 2017, Cai Qi, the party chief of Beijing, made another leap in the 20th Party Congress in 2022 from the bottom of the Politburo to a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, ranking fifth in the whole party. As a key member of Xi Jinping’s faction and a firm advocate of Xi Jinping’s thought, Cai’s repeated and stunning promotions highlight Xi’s primary hiring qualification: uncompromising loyalty.
If you do not remember the Chinese official who made the final speech at the closing ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics, you will know him now. The communist party secretary of Beijing Cai Qi made his surprising debut in the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on October 23, succeeding Wang Huning as the First Secretary of the Secretariat of the CCP, which is mainly responsible for the ideology building and propaganda.
The Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party is the most important leadership group in China, with the Politburo Standing Committee being the core of this leadership group. Before October 23, no one could have predicted Cai on the list of the new PBSC since he only ranked 25th among the 25 members in the Politburo. Like the 19th Party Congress five years ago, Cai is once again a dark horse of the CCP.
In 2014, Cai Qi was a vice-governor of Zhejiang Province who was not even a member of the Central Committee of CCP. In early 2017, Cai was promoted to the communist secretary of Beijing but remained outside of the Central Committee. Only months later, at the 19th Party Congress, Cai jumped ahead of nearly 200 eager central committee members to join the Politburo, ranking 25th in the party. The impressive rise from the fringes of power to the CCP Politburo in just three years demonstrated Xi’s affinity for Cai.
Cai was one of Xi’s major subordinates for more than a decade during Xi’s early political career in Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces. As a result, Cai is often considered to be a member of the New Zhijiang Army, which is Xi’s lineage within the party and is mainly composed of Xi’s former subordinates and old classmates. Cai is also an important advocate of Xi and his ideology and has repeatedly expressed his loyalty to Xi in public and in the media. In fact, as early as 2017, before “Xi Jinping thought” had taken shape, Cai declared that the Chinese must “find our path of development by adhering to the spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s series of important speeches and important spirits”. In June this year, Cai called Xi “the backbone, the pillar and the fixing star of China” in one of the party meetings in Beijing. He also claimed that in the next five years, Beijing would persistently adhere to the “Zero-Covid” policy. The absolute loyalty to ideology Cai has shown is one of the most important reasons why he was able to be elected to the PBSC and take charge of ideology building this year.
Prior to 2017, Cai Qi was widely perceived by the public as an approachable and open-minded politician. During his time in Zhejiang, Cai was one of the few high-level CCP officials to use social media and frequently communicate with netizens (as “internet citizens”). Cai’s Weibo covered a wide range of topics, including public affairs, policy commentary, and social news. Cai even told netizens not to take the power and intrigue in the American TV series House of Cards too seriously. He also advocated that all government decisions be made open to the public. Cai stopped updating his Weibo after getting promoted to Beijing.
It was shortly after Cai took office in Beijing that people saw his ruthless side. In the winter of 2017, in response to Xi’s proposal to control the population in Beijing, Cai launched a special campaign to regulate migrant worker settlements, forcibly demolishing apartments and streets where migrant workers live and work. Tens of thousands of migrant workers lost their livelihoods overnight and were left homeless in the cold winter in Beijing. Cai’s cruel methods were strongly condemned by many scholars and media then and have become an important reason why people now oppose his promotion into PBSC.
However, what Xi needs is not a team that panders to public opinion but an executive team that is absolutely subservient to his orders. Perhaps to Xi, Cai’s cruelty is a sign of his loyalty. The same explanation can be applied to Li Qiang’s promotion to PBSC, whose COVID control policy caused endless supply shortages and panic in Shanghai for almost four months.
We can’t expect Cai to show the approachable, open-minded side as a national leader as he had before 2017. As the Secretary of the Secretariat in charge of ideology building and propaganda, he will spare no effort to raise the status of Xi Jinping’s thought to new heights in the history of CCP and China. Also, stricter censorship and control over books, movies, news media, and social platforms can be imposed by Cai in China for at least the next five years to allow Xi to govern all aspects of Chinese society better.