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Sun Zhengcai's removal may signal split from China succession norms

Chongqing party chief and political high-flyer Sun Zhengcai's downfall is a sign that the norms of leadership succession that came about during the Deng Xiaoping era and after are being changed.

It is also an indication that it is yet to be decided who will succeed the leadership led by President Xi Jinping, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gears up for its 19th national congress due to take place this autumn.

Mr Sun's fall from grace also reflects the resolve of Mr Xi's administration in carrying out the anti-corruption drive, say some analysts, although not everyone agrees. Some believe he was removed as Chongqing party chief as he did not show enough loyalty to Mr Xi.

The Global Times tabloid, owned by the party mouthpiece People's Daily, said in an op-ed yesterday that Mr Sun "has failed to rein in his power and control his swelling selfish desires".

Mr Sun was suddenly removed from his post as party chief of Chongqing on July 15 and replaced by Mr Chen Min'er, the Guizhou province party boss and a trusted protege of Mr Xi's.

Then on Monday, it was announced that Mr Sun, 53, also a member of the powerful 25-member Politburo, was being investigated for "serious violation" of party discipline.

While it is unclear what mistakes Mr Sun has committed, said Professor Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, Chongqing city has been performing below expectations in the past five years under Mr Sun's leadership.

For example, there has been no continuation of the anti-corruption campaign following the ructions of 2012 in the city with a corruption scandal involving then party chief Bo Xilai, a potential rival of Mr Xi. A February report by the party's anti-graft watchdog said the "evil legacy" of Bo had not been completely removed from the city.

When Mr Sun and Guangdong party boss Hu Chunhua, 54, were inducted into the Politburo in 2012, they were seen as front runners to succeed Mr Xi and his contemporaries.

However, by removing Mr Sun, Mr Xi "wants to send a signal to party members that there is no fixed pass to the top", said Prof Zheng. "You have to work hard, you can't just wait there, you have to perform."

In the past, anointed successors just had to keep their head down, toe the line and not make mistakes so as to move up, but this is not enough any more. Prof Zheng expects that Mr Xi will build a new succession system.

Another possible break from the past is that instead of the normal two terms in office, Mr Xi might go for a third term as leader of the CCP. This is why he is in no hurry to name a successor at the upcoming party congress, analysts have said.

For this to happen, said Professor Huang Jing of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Mr Xi will have to reform the state and party leadership structure put in place by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping when he made Mr Jiang Zemin the president, secretary-general of the CCP and chairman of the Central Military Commission.

This is because the state president's two-term limit was written into the Constitution during Deng's time as a way of preventing anyone from clinging on to power. But there is no written term limit for the general secretary of the party, only an unwritten norm of two terms.

So while Mr Xi can stay on as party chief for a third term in 2022, he cannot remain as president.

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