Li Changchun

Li Changchun: A rising star who has had recent setbacks

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 November, 2002, 12:00am

In May, Guangdong party secretary Li Changchun stepped up to a microphone to introduce the members of the Ninth Guangdong Party Standing Committee. With the committee members lined up stiffly behind him and a rich crimson backdrop of Chinese and Communist Party flags, it was an impressive scene.

Then Mr Li's deep, commanding voice filled the hall. For those usually hard-pressed to understand the stilted Putonghua of Guangdong's Cantonese officials, listening to the party secretary's crystal-clear northern accent was like having wool pulled from their ears.

At the end of the introductions, Mr Li closed with a few words of Cantonese. Oddly, for his parting shot he attempted to translate a Putonghua salutation da jia hao (hello everybody), seldom used by Cantonese speakers. But instead of the correct Cantonese rendition daaih ga hou, what Mr Li produced sounded more like of a man choking on his dinner.

Since Mr Li was appointed Guangdong party secretary in 1998, everything about the Dalian-native from his regal bearing to his crisp Putonghua and tortured Cantonese has reminded Guangdong people that he is not one of them.

Indeed, many will be glad to see the back of him as he takes his place on the Politburo standing committee. Otherwise, they would have had to wait until next March, when it is expected he will be named a vice-premier.

Mr Li's lack of ties to Guangdong, personal or professional, is precisely the reason he was appointed to the job. He spent the early years of his career in Shenyang. In 1982, at the age of 39, he became the youngest mayor and party secretary of a major city.

Just three years later he became the youngest governor of Liaoning province. In the early and mid-1990s he was transferred to Henan province, where he served as governor and party secretary.

Replacing long-serving Guangdong native Xie Fie as provincial party secretary in 1998, Mr Li was seen as a man the Central Government could trust to whip a prodigal province into shape.

Predictably, perhaps, Mr Li's 4.5 years in Guangdong have not been overly happy ones for the province, which has been the target of Beijing crackdowns.

First was the 1997-98 break-up of China's then largest smuggling ring in the western Guangdong port town of Zhanjiang, which brought down the city's party secretary and head of customs. That was followed in the summer of 1998 by Beijing's anti-smuggling campaign which, though nationwide in scope, was directed largely at Guangdong and Fujian. And in August 2000 about 300 central government investigators descended on Shantou, in eastern Guangdong, to put an end to China's largest tax-fraud racket.

But the worst blow for Guangdong was the closure and subsequent bankruptcy of Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corporation (Gitic) in October 1998, despite the objections of provincial governor and Shantou-area native Lu Ruihua. As a result Gitic defaulted on loans totalling US$4 billion (HK$31.2 billion) sparking a credit freeze that pushed many of Guangdong's other window companies in Hong Kong and Macau to the wall.

While all of these crackdowns were against Guangdong's interests, in the eyes of Beijing they were also evidence of a job well done by Mr Li.

In that case, why has Mr Li's advancement not been more assured? Only earlier this year, he was widely regarded as a possible replacement for Premier Zhu Rongji and a strong contender for a seat on the Politburo standing committee.

The thinking was that Mr Li would make it to the standing committee only if its seats were expanded from seven to nine. On the government side, it is reckoned that the best he can expect is a vice-premiership.

One of the more interesting explanations of Mr Li's apparently diminished prospects is that President Jiang Zemin was allegedly disappointed that his Three Representatives theory did not get more of a boost from the province.

According to this line of reasoning, Mr Jiang first unveiled the theory in Guangdong because he expected, but was disappointed not to, receive a level of support similar to that enjoyed by Deng Xiaoping during his now famous southern tour in February 1992. Such speculation, of course, is impossible to either prove or disprove.

1944: Born in Dalian

1966: Graduated from the Harbin Industrial University

1968: Transferred to Shenyang, in Liaoning province, as a factory technician

1980: Appointed to a vice-head position in the Shenyang municipal government

1982: Mayor and party secretary of Shenyang

1985: Appointed governor of Liaoning province

1990-92: Governor and party secretary of Henan province

1997: Promoted to the Politburo as its youngest member, and transferred to Guangdong province a year later