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Analysis-Shanghai COVID crisis puts political spotlight on key Xi ally

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BEIJING (Reuters) – While Shanghai Communist Party leader Li Qiang has been politically bruised by the city’s struggle to tame a COVID-19 outbreak that has infuriated residents and caused severe economic damage, there is few signs of this.

FILE PHOTO: Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang speaks during the opening ceremony of the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai, China July 9, 2020. REUTERS/Aly song

A close ally of President Xi Jinping for decades, Li has long been seen as destined for the powerful Politburo Standing Committee this year, following a well-worn path from the top spot in Shanghai that many analysts say looks safe despite the global crisis. City COVID.

The outbreaks have derailed the careers of some local Chinese officials. But they did not share Li’s stature or history with Xi, under whose leadership the boss of China’s most populous city rose steadily through the party ranks.

And while Xi may be China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, he needs a core of loyal followers in the seven-member Standing Committee.

Admittedly, the opacity of Chinese politics and Xi’s willingness to break with precedent – he removed presidential term limits – make predictions difficult for the Communist Party congress that will take place once every five years. this fall and which will determine Xi’s next direction.

Li, 62, has not been directly associated in public with the “slice and grid” approach to the fight against COVID, in which Shanghai authorities have sought to isolate the coronavirus in specific neighborhoods to allow the city ​​as a whole to avoid a disruptive lockdown.

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This strategy failed. A spike in infections has prompted a turnaround, a more than five-week lockdown in the city of 25million.

Now Shanghai is tightening its lockdown in a fresh push to eliminate infections outside quarantine zones by the end of the month, people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

USEFUL ‘CHESS PIECE’

Social media users directed some of their anger at Li, with posts on popular site Weibo such as “Shanghai’s party secretary should just own up to his mistake and step down” and “A shameless politician has destroyed Shanghai.”

Li and the Communist Party’s organization department, which is in charge of personnel, did not respond to requests for comment.

Party bosses in Wuhan, where COVID was first detected, and surrounding Hubei province, have been replaced in 2020. At least 31 officials from the northwest city of Xian have been punished this year after an epidemic that led to confinement.

Shanghai punished at least 25 officials during its outbreak.

But none of these Shanghai officials were above the district level, and the highest-ranking Xian official punished was the health chief.

“The people who will be blamed for the Shanghai debacle will be those who are politically useless,” said Charles Parton, a former British diplomat and senior research associate at the Royal United Services Institute think tank.

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Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, said officials elsewhere “would already be gone”.

“But because of Li’s closeness to Xi, his potential usefulness to Xi as a chess piece in the new leadership formation, and because the Shanghai party leader is of a much higher rank than party leaders from most other cities in China, Li is going to be sure.”

“PERSIST CONSTANTLY”

Li has appeared on state media several times visiting residential compounds and hospitals, wearing an N95 mask, black jacket and pants – the de facto uniform of party leaders in the field.

With each appearance, he reiterates the message, “We must resolutely implement the spirit of Party Secretary Xi Jinping’s important instructions and resolutely persist in the zero dynamic approach.”

Although the city is still reporting thousands of COVID cases every day, the Standing Committee said Thursday it believed the party could “surely win the battle for Shanghai” propelled by Xi’s COVID policy.

“If Shanghai’s fight against COVID should be considered a success, then why should Li, firmly implementing Xi’s approach leading to this success, be punished?” said Chen Daoyin, former associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, now a professor. commentator based in Chile.

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No senior official has publicly questioned Xi’s zero COVID policy, which has come under increasing strain from the infectivity of the Omicron variant and further isolated China as the rest of the world learns to living with coronavirus.

Despite the headwinds, China is expected to stick to its tough approach at least until the party congress, where Xi is set to secure a third term in office. He claimed China’s fight against COVID as a major political achievement that shows the superiority of its socialist model over the West.

In the end, Li responds to only one boss.

A native of Zhejiang province, Li served as Xi’s chief secretary – a role for most trusted confidants – from 2004 to 2007, when Xi was the party leader in the eastern coastal province. Li was promoted to governor of the economic powerhouse province in 2013, the year Xi became president.

When Xi sacked several officials in neighboring Jiangsu province amid a corruption crackdown and needed someone he trusted to fill the political vacuum, he dispatched Li in 2016, elevating him to the post of leader of the provincial party.

The following year, Xi promoted Li to party chief in Shanghai.

All but one of Shanghai’s party leaders since the late 1980s, including Xi, were eventually promoted to the Standing Committee.

Reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Additional reporting by David Stanway in Shanghai; Editing by Tony Munroe and William Mallard

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