Hu protege shows he's got what it takes
The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26 in 2004 coincided with another, more positive, seismic shift in the northeastern province of Liaoning .
Li Keqiang, on his 12th day as the province's new party chief, made a surprise appearance in Fushun , an industrial city in the east of the province once famed for its coal production.
After a brief stroll through the blighted neighbourhoods of Modigou, a ragged swathe of land on the city's southeastern edge crowded with small, ramshackle houses thrown up helter-skelter several decades ago, Mr Li stepped into a house of little more than 20 square metres - home to a family of six.
'You can take my word for it,' he said. 'It won't take too long to get you out of the penghu [slum] home. We're willing to smash the pot to sell iron [to gather enough money] if that's what it takes.'
What was then taken as well-intended lip service turned out to be the beginning of a massive redevelopment project for the nation's worst slums. Liaoning's urban contours have since undergone a transformation, with more than 12 million square metres of slums consigned to the history books.
New apartment blocks rise from cleared patches of land; boxy concrete structures painted pastel yellow, green or pink. More than 1.2 million former slum dwellers have a decent place they can call home, most for the first time in their lives.
The speed of the process has been staggering. In Fushun, 400,000 square metres of slum dwellings was knocked down in the first 40 days.
Liu Qigang , deputy director of the city's Housing Management Bureau, said the rate of slum clearance was phenomenal compared with the previous 17 years.
'The speed was 10,000 square metres of clearance per day, compared to the previous 30,000 per year,' he said. 'That's like London during the Blitz.'
Within six months, 600,000 square metres of resettlement housing had been built, with the size of each family's home increasing an average of nearly 80 per cent.
'It would have taken 100 years if we were still operating at the old pace,' Mr Liu said.
Cautious party leaders were quick to point out that the slum reform plan had always been in the minds of the provincial leadership. But it got sidetracked because of a lack of money and 'lack of real determination', said Vice-Governor Li Jia , in charge of the project.
It was the new party chief who accelerated the project.
Four days after returning to Shenyang , the provincial capital, from the Modigou slums, Li Keqiang set the goal of tackling large slums within three years at a provincial people's congress meeting.
On March 16, 2005, less than three months after his Modigou visit, an elaborate action plan to transform the slum areas in 14 cities was released, with the unmistakable emphasis that it was the top task for every local party leadership.
'It was after Comrade Keqiang took office that the province started to really sink its teeth into this problem on a phenomenal scale,' the vice-governor said. 'It had never happened like this before.'
Sheer political will was certainly not enough. Tackling slums is a costly business and private property developers were reluctant to pour money into such a notorious sinkhole. For a rust-belt province such as Liaoning, left behind by the economic boom that has benefited its wealthy southeast coast counterparts, it took buckets of money from Beijing to make it happen.
On January 24, 2005, 42 days after Mr Li was appointed Liaoning party chief, the province received a whopping 50 billion yuan low-interest loan from the State Development Bank to 'revitalise the old industrial base'. Six billion yuan was earmarked for the redevelopment project, which was warmly received by the central party leadership and the State Council, said Li Jia.
An extra 1.2 billion was channelled north from Beijing to 'build infrastructure in coal production areas'.
The government has provided 80 per cent of the project's total cost of about 20 billion yuan so far, and the vice-governor said provincial fiscal revenues, which had increased 20 per cent since 2003, had contributed about 1.8 billion yuan to its 'No 1 project'.
City governments also showed unequivocal support for the party secretary's pet project, rolling out preferential policies ranging from direct injections of funding to housing fee reductions and waivers.
Zhang Dianchun, vice-mayor of Benxi, where more than 30,000 families moved in to new houses in less than two years, said his city had benefited from Li Keqiang's 'awareness, resoluteness and high co-ordination skills'.
His ability to 'co-ordinate with Beijing, with the development bank and within the province' was 'unprecedented' in the history of Liaoning's leadership, Mr Zhang said.
Affordable housing for the poor is only the first step. Mr Li, one of the most prominent rising stars of the Communist Party's younger generation and a protege of President Hu Jintao, is a micro-manager and a long-range planner.
'The plan is to not only provide people with a livable place, but also help them sustain their living there,' said Vice-Governor Li. City governments have tried to set up employment centres in every resettlement area to help the disadvantaged find jobs.
In Fushun, less than two in 10 slum dwellers were employed by 2004 and their average monthly salary was 188 yuan, said Mayor Liu Qiang. Slum dwellers also accounted for more than half of the city's crime. The employment rate in new resettlement houses was 85 per cent and the crime rate had been halved, he said.
In Tieling , a traditional agricultural city where slum dwellers once made up a third of the urban population, the employment centre had helped more than 90 per cent of resettled people find jobs.
Benxi's government publicists are producing a documentary titled A Heroic Feat that Enhances People's Livelihood and the provincial propaganda machine is trying even harder to cultivate Liaoning's image as an example for hundreds of other slums around the country.
In a sense, the official title of the redevelopment project - 'The No 1 Minxin [people's hearts] Project' - tells it all.
The net result of Li Keqiang's project had been the winning of tens of thousands of people's hearts and an increase in the party secretary's political capital, analysts said.
Despite being touted as one of the leading contenders to succeed Mr Hu in 2012, the 51-year-old had not yet got enough 'hard-core' credentials under his belt, said an observer of party personnel at the National School of Administration, the state-run civil service training centre and policy think-tank in Beijing.
In his previous post as party chief of the central province of Henan, Mr Li had to weather a number of embarrassing setbacks, including the province's lacklustre economic growth and serious HIV infections in its villages.
'By far, the slum project is his most significant political performance,' the political scientist said. 'It may help his case for elevation to the Politburo later this year.'
But there were other reasons for the party chief's fervour for slum clearance. Liaoning's slums and shanty towns fuelled the spread of crime, disease and dissent, all threats to the 'harmonious society' that President Hu has vowed to build.
Fushun Mayor Liu Qiang said Liaoning had shown 'great resolution in executing instructions from the central party leadership'.
The project's slogan - 'hexie chaiqian (harmoniously demolish and resettle)' - seems to bear out Mr Li's shrewd but considerate nature, which could help to explain his prospects for a fifth-generation leadership position.
'He's level-headed and quick to read people's minds,' said Liu Changjiang, deputy general secretary of the provincial government. Those are exactly the same words people usually use to describe President Hu.
The project will conclude next year, and the remaining slum areas to be tackled will be those occupying less than 10,000 square metres. However, Mr Li's grand redevelopment plan only covers the province's cities.
'For the time being we cannot afford to touch those in villages,' said Vice-Governor Li Jia.
By the time it does get down to the village level, Li Keqiang might find he has much more on his plate.