‘Shanghai Gang’ Seeks Xi’s Ouster

Hong Kong is battleground in Beijing’s power struggle

Chinese President Xi Jinping has indirectly acknowledged he is locked in a power struggle with a rival political faction backed by former Chinese President Jiang Zemin. The admission can be found in recent charges related to sedition and state secrets against former Chinese security vice minister Sun Lijun (pictured), who was arrested in April of 2020.

Since Sun was formerly the most senior Chinese police official dealing with Hong Kong, the public charges of rebellion against Sun confirm Hong Kong is a proxy battleground for the power struggle in the corridors of power in Beijing.

“Sun was at the heart of the spillover of factionalism from the mainland to Hong Kong. Hong Kong was a proxy for that,” a risk consultant told Asia Sentinel. “This is the beginning of open warfare. It’s the political rebellion against Xi being so openly stated that’s telling.”

For the 120-plus senior officials, nicknamed “tigers” taken down since Xi launched his anti-corruption campaign in 2012, the accusations against them usually involve taking bribes and sexual impropriety. The charges announced against this tiger, Sun, on September 30 also include allegations of taking huge bribes and sexual misdemeanors.

What is unusual in Sun’s case is the explicit accusations of revolt against the leadership. Sun had “extremely bloated political ambition, vile political quality,” according to China’s anti-corruption agencies, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the National Supervisory Commission.

To fulfill his personal political goals, Sun groomed rebels within the Chinese Communist Party, spent much effort forming interest groups to control key government departments, and seriously undermined the unity and political security of the party, according to the allegations. He is accused of blatantly selling official posts and inserting his trusted minions in positions, which severely damaged the political and legal environment of the Public Security Ministry.

“Essentially, they have openly stated Sun was mounting a coup. The reality is he did not act in isolation,” said the risk consultant. Sun is part of Jiang’s camp, he added.

Sun was secretary to Meng Jianzhu, a former Minister of Public Security, and a close ally of Deputy Prime Minister Han Zheng, who heads the central leading group on Hong Kong and Macau affairs, wrote Alex Payette in a report of IRIS, the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, in May 2020. Han Zheng belongs to the “Shanghai Gang” of Jiang, wrote Payette, chief executive officer of Cercius Group, a geopolitical consultancy headquartered in Montreal.

Sun’s arrest is “framed in the more complex factional struggle between Xi and his allies and the public security apparatus, which was, until recently, still serving the interests of its previous bosses like Zhou Yongkang, Meng Jianzhu and Luo Gan… a close ally of Jiang Zemin,” said the IRIS report, whose president is former French minister Alain Richard and whose honorary chairman is former WTO director-general Pascal Lamy.

Xi apparently harbors a deep distrust of the Chinese police forces, so in 2020 he launched a purge of the political-legal system, wrote Willy Lam in a report of the Jamestown Foundation, a US geopolitical consultancy, on September 23. From February to July, 178,431 members of China’s political and legal organs were investigated and punished, wrote Lam, a senior fellow of the Jamestown Foundation.

Battleground Hong Kong

“Strategically, the fall of Sun Lijun does make sense, especially if one wants to kill two birds with one stone: 1) removing one of Meng Jianzhu’s men as part of the overall “cleaning” of the Public Security apparatus; 2) removing one more disruptive element from the Hong Kong affairs system as Sun was involved in the “management” of the Hong Kong protests,” the IRIS report added.

Sun was appointed director of the Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan office under China’s Ministry of Public Security in December 2017. He was the top Chinese police official in charge of Hong Kong when protests rocked the semi-autonomous city from mid-2019 to early 2020.

“As such, Sun’s removal, which comes four days after that of Yang Jian, deputy director of the Hong Kong Liaison Office for the Central Government and an ally of (former Chinese Vice President) Zeng Qinghong, deals an additional blow to competing interests located in the Hong Kong affairs system,” the IRIS report explained.

“Sun’s arrest also raises a plethora of questions regarding Hong Kong’s public security... It also seems to suggest that Sun might have been part of the communication problems plaguing the Hong Kong affairs system, which exacerbated social unrest. His removal is most likely to streamline and clarify the communication channels between Beijing and Hong Kong,” the IRIS report pointed out.

The arrests of Sun and a Chinese businessman, Lee Henley Hu Xiang, lend credibility to the belief that Xi suspects powerful forces within China’s establishment are using the Hong Kong protests to undo him, Asia Sentinel reported on May 1, 2020.

Given Sun’s role in Hong Kong, “those who understand the factionalism in China will appreciate the depth of the spillover to Hong Kong and therefore the rooting out that’s been taking place as a consequence,” said the risk consultant.

Giving away state secrets

China’s anti-graft agencies also accused Sun of spreading political rumors as well as concealing and secretly giving away state secrets, but did not name the parties who received those state secrets.

In May 2017, Sun and some colleagues made a trip to the US in an effort to secure the extradition of Guo Wengui but failed as high-ranking US officials refused to meet with him, Asia Sentinel reported on September 5, 2020. Guo, also known as Miles Kwok, is a fugitive businessman wanted in his home country for financial and sex crimes, and now lives in New York. One member of the Chinese team traveling with Sun tipped off Guo, Asia Sentinel reported.

Other charges against Sun include receiving many expensive gifts, shamelessly using his power to obtain bribes, frequently trading power for sex, and paying for sex. He is due to be tried in court, said the Chinese anti-corruption agencies. The nature of his crimes is “particularly serious and vile,” deserving of severe punishment, the agencies added.

There is a high probability that Sun will be executed, “as the rebellion charge is really just recognition that he challenged Xi’s leadership, but to execute him for that is fraught with potentially making a political martyr out of Sun,” said a source. “So the corruption evidence is what will be used to hammer him and make the point that punishment for those in senior positions who pose a threat to the regime will be dealt with severely.”


This article is among the stories we choose to make widely available. If you wish to get the full Asia Sentinel experience and access more exclusive content, please do subscribe to us.

A guest post by