By Sui-Lee Wee and Ben Blanchard
BEIJING, Nov 21 (Reuters) - China appointed on Wednesday a loyal ally of President Hu Jintao to become propaganda minister and promoted one of its most senior female leaders to Communist Party chief of the northern port city of Tianjin.
The new propaganda minister, Liu Qibao, formerly the party boss of southwestern Sichuan province, replaces Liu Yunshan, who was last week raised to the Standing Committee following a once-every-five-year party congress that unveiled a generational leadership change.
While media-savvy, Liu is unlikely to loosen media controls as China’s leaders, nervous about stability and the need to ensure one-party rule, are likely to keep domestic media on a short leash and clamp down on China’s increasingly unruly Internet, which has over 500 million users.
The brief Xinhua announcement confirmed a Reuters report in October that said Liu Qibao was tipped to replace Liu Yunshan. The two are not related despite sharing a surname.
According to an official biography, he comes from a poor background and rose to the upper echelons of the party through Hu’s powerbase of the Communist Youth League.
As propaganda minister, Liu will have to instill confidence in the party and its policies and ensure a monopoly on the flow of information, something which is becoming harder in modern, wired China, with web sites and several feisty new publications straining at the leash to uncover corruption and abuse of power.
Liu will be in charge of disseminating official policy and viewpoints as well as trying to combat rumours spread by the growing lack of public trust in mainstream state-run media’s often mundane and occasionally dubious reporting.
Unusually for a senior Chinese official, he has engaged with ordinary people via online questions and used the popular Twitter-like microblog Sina Weibo to send messages.
But he has taken a hardline approach to tackling a surge of self-immolations and protests in restive ethnic Tibetan parts of the province, and has locked up some dissidents.
In a separate announcement, Xinhua said that Sun Chunlan, 62, will move to Tianjin, which the government is trying to turn into a global financial centre, from the southeastern coastal province of Fujian, where she had been party boss since 2009. The appointment had been widely expected.
Sun is one of only two women on the Politburo, a 25-member body that is a mix of military and civilian leaders which reports to the party’s elite decision-making core, the seven-man Standing Committee.
She replaces Zhang Gaoli, who was also raised to the Standing Committee.
Sun worked her way up through various factory jobs in China’s northeastern industrial heartland and spent time in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Liaoning province, where the then up-and-coming Bo Xilai also worked and with whom she reputedly clashed, sources say.
Bo, once a top contender for senior leadership, is currently being investigated for corruption and abuse of power after his wife murdered a British businessman.
Tianjin, about 30 minutes southeast of Beijing by high-speed train, was a lively trade centre in pre-Communist days, before becoming a grubby backwater overshadowed by its close neighbour the Chinese capital.
But investment in Tianjin accelerated under Zhang’s leadership, which began in 2007.
But critics see Tianjin as typical of the kind of debt-financed infrastructure splurges that have succeeded in getting politicians noticed inside China’s ruling Communist Party but have left behind mixed economic blessings.