The Shanghai kingpin who rose to the top

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 March, 2006, 12:00am

Vice-premier's illness could see faction's strength decline

When Huang Ju was party chief of Shanghai, he offered three guarantees to the central government which paved the way for his eventual promotion to vice-premier and the Politburo's powerful standing committee.

He pledged to follow the path of socialism, abide by state economic policies and give an increasingly larger share of revenue to the central government. This move cemented the reputation of Mr Huang, an engineer by training, as a man who toed the party line and kept his bosses happy.

However, his political career appears to be drawing to a close with his reported diagnosis of cancer.

After serving as Shanghai mayor from 1991 to 1995 and party secretary from 1994 to 2002 (during one period he held both posts), Mr Huang can claim credit for bringing the city out of a decades-long slumber.

'He created some important opportunities for Shanghai's development. He was low-key and possessed political sense. He worked closely with top leaders and earned much trust,' a veteran journalist said.

However, less-charitable critics say he moved up the ladder on the coattails of Jiang Zemin , the former president and power behind the 'Shanghai gang', the political faction made up of officials with ties to the city.

Mr Huang's departure would be a blow to the Shanghai gang, which is sharing power with the new administration of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao .

'The Shanghai gang will be less powerful than before and Hu Jintao will have more people in the standing committee and Politburo,' said Cheng Li, professor of government at Hamilton College.

'Having said that, I think the coalition led by the Shanghai gang will remain powerful. The important thing is balance of power.'

Even as Mr Huang's political career was threatened by a land scandal involving now-jailed developer Chau Ching-ngai , he became a standing committee member in 2002 and vice premier holding the key economic and financial portfolio in 2003.

But at the central government level, his star hasn't shone as brightly.

On his watch, the mainland sought to cool runaway economic growth, engineered an appreciation of the currency and implemented pledges to the World Trade Organisation. Regulators appear to have heeded calls to do something about the stock market.

But the government, while broadly committed to economic reforms, has shown some backsliding after using administrative measures to slow the economy.

'This leadership team seems at times to be less at ease about allowing the market to do its thing,' said Stephen Green, senior economist for China for Standard Chartered Bank.

Some of Mr Huang's lesser-known responsibilities include air traffic management, chemical weapons, hijacking negotiations and production safety. The mainland has suffered a string of industrial accidents and mine disasters in recent months, which have reflected badly.

A native of Zhejiang province , Mr Huang studied electrical engineering at Beijing's Tsinghua University before working at machinery, metal and petrochemical companies in Shanghai.

He held several posts in the Shanghai government, jumping from a bureau overseeing the electrical and machinery industry to vice-mayor, mayor and finally party secretary.

People who worked with Mr Huang in Shanghai describe him as politically savvy. He was not as liked in Shanghai as populist mayors like Zhu Rongji and Xu Kuangdi .

At his final media appearance before taking a central government position, he demonstrated his powers of memory by reeling off the ages of his underlings then jesting about his age.

'Only I am over 60,' he said, laughing.

There are rumours Mr Huang is receiving care in a Shanghai hospital and could retire in the city. After he was named to the Politburo Standing Committee, he said: 'Having worked and lived in Shanghai for 40 years, I have deep feelings for the city.'