Sudden Death of Former Shanghai Mayor Draws Attention to Infighting Within Chinese Leadership

April 16, 2021 Updated: April 16, 2021

News Analysis

With the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) getting closer, the death of Yang Xiong, former mayor of Shanghai, has drawn people’s attention to the power struggle within the CCP, especially between Xi Jinping and former leader Jiang Zemin.

The 20th National Congress will be held in the autumn of next year. The CCP’s National Congress is held every five years to decide who will be the next leader.

According to the CCP’s official media, Yang died of a heart attack in Shanghai Huashan Hospital in the early hours of April 12 at the age of 68.

Hong Kong’s Sing Tao Daily quoted Xu Shiping, former president and chief editor of Shanghai Eastday Co., as saying that Yang was sent to the hospital at around 10 p.m. on April 11. Then about two hours later, Yang was pronounced dead and the hospital confirmed that he died of a heart attack.

Yang Was Part of Jiang Zemin’s Faction

Yang Xiong was born in November 1953 in Hangzhou city, Zhejiang Province. According to overseas Chinese language media, Yang’s rise to the position of Shanghai mayor was due to the “two Jiangs”—Jiang Zemin and his eldest son, Jiang Mianheng.

When Jiang Zemin was the secretary of Shanghai Municipal Committee, Yang was his subordinate. Yang was also Jiang Mianheng’s confidant and henchman. People in Shanghai speculated that while Yang was the mayor, he was merely a puppet and the real boss was Jiang Mianheng.

In the early 1990s, Jiang Mianheng established Shanghai Alliance Investment Ltd., and acted as the chairman of the board of directors. Yang was appointed as the general manager.

In 1999, Yang became the chairman of the board of directors of Shanghai Airlines.

In 2001, Yang began his political career in Shanghai and Jiang Mianheng helped him to climb the ranks, according to Chinese media. Starting from February that year, Yang served as deputy secretary general, vice mayor, member of the Standing Committee of the Shanghai Municipal Committee, and executive vice mayor of Shanghai.

However, at the 18th National Congress of the CCP in 2012, Yang, who was deputy mayor of Shanghai at the time, was not selected as a member, or an alternate member, of the Central Committee of the CCP—China’s top political body, which currently has 205 full members and 171 alternate members. It is the CCP’s highest organ of authority when the National Congress is not in a plenary session.

On Dec. 20, 2012, Yang was appointed as the acting mayor of Shanghai, right under Han Zheng, the CCP’s party committee secretary of Shanghai.

On Feb. 1, 2013, Yang became the mayor of Shanghai, but he was not a member of the CCP Central Committee—this had never happened in Shanghai’s leadership.

Around that time, overseas Chinese media reported that Xi Jinping wanted to appoint someone he trusted as Shanghai’s mayor, but Jiang Mianheng stepped in. Xi failed to accomplish his goal because Jiang Zemin and his family has tremendous power and influence in Shanghai.

Jiang Zemin became the mayor of Shanghai in 1985, and then subsequently the party committee secretary of Shanghai, before he climbed to the top and became the general secretary of the CCP’s Central Committee in 1989, after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. His eldest son, Jiang Mianheng, moved to Shanghai in 1993 after he completed his PhD in Electrical Engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia in the United States.

Yang’s Demotion: A Career Roadblock

According to Hong Kong magazine publication Chengming, Yang was “given a talk” by the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. In other words, Yang was placed under investigation by the CCP’s internal anti-corruption watchdog over allegations of corruption.

He was then required to criticize himself and own up to his transgressions in front of the Standing Committee of the Shanghai Municipal Committee. He admitted to abusing his power when he approved projects, accepting bribes, and having extramarital affairs.

After Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he began an anti-corruption campaign via the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and purged a large number of senior officials—most of them belonged to Jiang Zemin’s camp.

On Jan. 17, 2017, Yang stepped down as Shanghai’s mayor. On Feb. 24 that year, he became deputy chairman of the National People’s Congress Financial and Economic Affairs Committee.

This was the worst treatment for a Shanghai mayor in 26 years. In other words, Yang was demoted. All the previous mayors of Shanghai were at least at the vice-national level in terms of their bureaucrat ranking.

Epoch Times Photo
A man walks on the bund in front of the financial district of Pudong in Shanghai, China on March 9, 2016. (Aly Song/Reuters)

ShanghaiTech University

On the same day that Yang passed away, on April 12, ShanghaiTech University published an article, titled, “Sorrowful Tribute to the Memory of Comrade Yang Xiong, Director of the School Council of ShanghaiTech University.”

The article spoke highly of Yang’s contributions to the university, and it mentioned that Yang had visited the school many times when he was the mayor and the deputy CCP secretary of Shanghai.

It is noteworthy that ShanghaiTech University was founded by Jiang Mianheng.

On June 30, 2019, the second school council of the ShanghaiTech University was established and held its first meeting. Both Jiang Mianheng and Yang were members of the council. Other members include Ding Zhongli, vice chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, and Zhou Xiaochuan, vice chairman of the 12th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), both of whom are at the vice national level in terms of their positions in the CCP’s political system. Yang was only a provincial-level official.

A group photo of the council members on ShanghaiTech’s website shows that Yang was sitting between Ding Zhongli and Zhou Xiaochuan–this raised some eyebrows.

China affairs commentator Li Yanming told The Epoch Times in an interview that the CCP’s official hierarchy is very strict, and the seating orders are very important and always carefully arranged. The most important person is always situated in the middle in group photos. Therefore, it was very unusual that Yang was in the middle, instead of the two higher ranking officials.

Li believes that Yang’s failure to ascend to the CCP’s Central Committee as the mayor of Shanghai was related to Xi Jinping’s suppression of Jiang Zemin’s family. Meanwhile, Jiang Mianheng fought back by having Yang sit in the middle of that group photo.

Li said that many high ranking CCP officials have long lifespans as they have the privilege of receiving the best medical care. Many of them have lived for more than 90 years, and there are also many senior officials who are still in office at the age of 68. So, the very sudden death of Yang, a senior official at the ministerial level who also enjoyed medical care privileges, has drawn some public speculation, he added.

Lu pointed out that Lu Yachen, former vice president of Shanghai Electric Group and who also had ties to Jiang Zemin’s family, was placed under investigation on April 7. Then five days later, Yang Xiong died suddenly.

Li said that there is no doubt that Jiang Zemin’s family and his political faction are under pressure as Xi Jinping could be ramping up his anti-corruption campaign among officials ahead of the CCP’s 20th National Congress. It is widely believed that Xi will be seeking a third term, something unprecedented in China’s recent history.