Ahead of the Communist Party congress next year, President Xi Jinping has begun to reinforce his position as party chief. There have already been 12 changes out of 32 provinces to the party secretaries in 2016.
In little more than a year, the 19th congress of the Chinese Communist Party is to take place, but experts say that party leader and Chinese President Xi Jinping is already making personnel moves to ensure control of his top position.
Earlier this week, Xi appointed three new provincial party chiefs. According to a report by China's state news agency Xinhua released Sunday, in the southwestern province of Yunnan, Chen Hao was appointed party chief and in the populous province of Hunan, Du Jiahao was given the top position. According to Reuters, Chen and Du both worked with Xi in Shanghai when he was Communist party chief there for a short period in 2007. In Tibet, Wu Yingjie was appointed party chief.
These appointments were quickly followed by further reshuffling in the autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, as well as in the Anhui province.
By placing loyalists in key party positions, Xi can ensure that he has support when the party congress meets next year. "It is definite that he wants to bring in people he can trust," Matthias Stepan, head of Domestic Politics Programs at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, told DW.
Stepan added that this type of reshuffling is not unusual for leaders in Xi's position but that there was a clear timing for the rearrangement of key positions on the provincial level. "This is a clear prelude to a bigger reshuffle of positions in Beijing and the provinces," said Stepan.
Only the tip of the iceberg
"It is only the tip of the iceberg," said Stepan. "We will see a larger number of people assuming office as governors or vice-governors in the provinces over the course of the year. At the same time, many high level officials will transfer to positions in Beijing."
To rise in party ranks, experience in the provinces is often necessary. "A number of people currently holding office in Beijing will need to gain experience in the provinces – even if it is only for a year," underlined Stepan.
While Xi has progressively increased the authority of the party's core since he became chief in 2012, he still lacks support in the Central Committee, which comprises 205 full members that are the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party.
At the party congress in 2017, Xi will have the chance to control the process and exercise influence over new members. According to figures published in The Economist, the number of seats available will be 92, an unusually high figure resulting from members retiring or being removed because of corruption.
"For now Xi's weakness is that many of his reform projects have stalled and this makes him a target for people around him who may criticize his approach to govern," said Stepan. "But I don't detect anyone in the party who would directly challenge his power within the Communist Party," he added.
The Communist Party congress in China happens every five years and is where future leadership is chosen and where the direction of China's politics is determined. The seven-member core of political power in China, the Politburo Standing Committee, which Xi currently leads, is also to be determined at next year's conference.
There is widespread speculation that Xi will seek to extend his power beyond 2022, when he is due to step down, however Stepan disagrees with these assertions. "I don't see any evidence that Xi will overstep this well established party rule, and stay in office beyond 2022," he said. "I don't think that he seeks to solidify his control over power as a supreme leader like Mao."