By Yew Lun Tian
BEIJING (Reuters) - If Shanghai Communist Party chief 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 little sign of it.
A close ally of President Xi Jinping for decades, Li has long been seen as destined for the powerful Politburo Standing Committee this year, tracking a well-worn path from Shanghai's top spot that many analysts say appears safe despite the city's COVID crisis.
Outbreaks have derailed the careers of some local Chinese officials. But they did not share Li's stature or history with Xi, under whom the boss of China's most populous city has risen steadily through the party ranks.
And while Xi may be China's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, he needs a core of staunch loyalists on the seven-member Standing Committee.
To be sure, the opacity of Chinese politics and Xi's willingness to break with precedent - he scrapped presidential term limits - make predictions difficult for the once-in-five-years Communist Party congress this autumn that will determine Xi's next leadership lineup.
Li, 62, has not been directly associated in public with the "slice-and-grid" approach to fighting COVID, in which Shanghai authorities sought to isolate the coronavirus in specific neighbourhoods to allow the city as a whole to avoid a disruptive lockdown.
That strategy failed. A spike in infections prompted an about-turn, a more-than five-week lockdown of the city of 25 million.
Now Shanghai is tightening its lockdown in a fresh push to eliminate infections outside quarantined areas by late this month, people familiar with the matter said told Reuters.
USEFUL 'CHESS PIECE'
Social media users have directed some of their ire at Li, with posts on the popular Weibo site such as "Shanghai party secretary should just acknowledge his mistake and resign," and "Shameless politician destroyed Shanghai".
Li and the Communist Party's Organisation Department, which is in charge of personnel, did not respond to requests for comment.
The party bosses in Wuhan, where COVID was first detected, and surrounding Hubei province, were replaced in 2020. At least 31 officials in the northwestern city of Xian were punished this year after an outbreak that led to lockdown.
Shanghai has punished at least 25 officials during its outbreak.
But none of those Shanghai officials were above the district level and the most senior Xian official punished was the health chief.
"The people who will be blamed for the debacle in Shanghai will be those who are politically dispensable," said Charles Parton, a former British diplomat and senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think tank.
Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, said officials elsewhere "would've been gone by now".
"But because of Li's closeness with Xi, his potential usefulness to Xi as a chess piece in the new leadership lineup, and because the Shanghai party boss is of a much higher rank than the party bosses of most other cities in China, Li is going to be safe."
Li has repeatedly appeared on state media visiting residential compounds and hospitals, wearing an N95 mask, black jacket and pants - the de facto uniform for party leaders in the field.
At every appearance, he reiterates the message: "We must resolutely implement the spirit of the important instructions by Party Secretary Xi Jinping and steadfastly persist in the dynamic-zero approach".
Although the city still reports thousands of COVID cases daily, the Standing Committee said on Thursday it believes the party can "surely win the battle of Shanghai", powered by Xi's COVID policy.
"If Shanghai's COVID fight were to be billed as a success, then why should Li, steadfastly 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 commentator based in Chile.
No senior officials have publicly questioned Xi's zero-COVID policy, which has been increasingly strained by the infectiousness of the Omicron variant and further isolated China as the rest of the world learns to live with the coronavirus.
Despite the headwinds, China is widely expected to stick with its hard-line approach at least until the party congress, where Xi is poised to secure a third leadership term. He has claimed China's fight against COVID as a major political achievement that shows the superiority of its socialist model to the West.
Ultimately, Li answers to one boss.
A native of Zhejiang province, Li was Xi's chief secretary - a role for the most trusted confidants - from 2004 to 2007 when Xi was party boss in the eastern coastal province. Li was promoted to governor of the economic powerhouse province in 2013, the year Xi became president.
When Xi removed several officials in neighbouring Jiangsu province as part of a corruption crackdown and needed someone trustworthy to fill the political vacuum, he sent in Li in 2016, elevating him to provincial party chief.
The next year, Xi promoted Li to Shanghai party boss.
All but one Shanghai party chief since the late 1980s, including Xi, has ultimately been 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)