Zhang on the ascent as he takes Chongqing post
The chances of Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang being appointed to the nation's most powerful ruling body this autumn have improved considerably after he was picked to lead the troubled southwestern municipality of Chongqing .
Being asked to take on the difficult task of succeeding the ousted Bo Xilai as the municipality's party secretary yesterday makes the 66-year-old Zhang a strong contender for a spot on the Politburo Standing Committee during the 18th party congress later this year.
Speaking at a meeting of Chongqing cadres after the surprising public announcement of Bo's downfall, Li Yuanchao, head of the party's Organisation Department, said the decision to appoint Zhang as party secretary was made through 'discreet consideration'.
'Comrade Zhang Dejiang is politically competent, fair, righteous, democratic and responsible,' Li said.
He also said Zhang possessed rich experience in handling complicated issues and he would lead Chongqing to greater progress under the party's leadership.
Seated beside Li during the meeting, Zhang said the appointment came with heavy responsibility and that he was glad to get the chance to serve the people of Chongqing.
'Chongqing is a good place,' Zhang said, praising the municipality's social and economic development since 1997. He pledged to improve the city government.
He urged cadres to remain consistent loyal to the policies of President Hu Jintao while working to improve people's lives, deepen reform and prevent corruption.
Professor Mao Shoulong, who teaches political science at Renmin University, said he expected Zhang's move to be temporary.
'My guess is that he won't stay in Chongqing very long,' Mao said. 'His next step should be a direct entrance to the Politburo Standing Committee. The central government had to appoint someone with the same rank as Bo, if not higher, to Chongqing. This role carries a heavy workload, and Zhang is a suitable choice.'
Mao speculated that Zhang's priority would be to stabilise the political atmosphere.
'It is unlikely that he will clean house - Bo didn't seem to have formed a very solid circle of political allies in Chongqing,' he said.
Professor Guo Weiqing of Sun Yat-sen University's School of Government also said the need to stabilise Chongqing was paramount.
'Even though the 'Chongqing model' is a controversial one, it is reasonable to expect that stabilising the municipality will be Zhang's top priority,' Guo said.
Professor Zhang Ming, also from Renmin University, said he believed that Zhang Dejiang was up to the task.
'His appointment is only a transitional arrangement,' Zhang Ming said. 'But it's hard to speculate on his next political move.'
The Liaoning-born Zhang Dejiang was a student of the Korean language in the Jilin border prefecture of Yanbian. He went to North Korea in 1978 to study economics at the Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang and graduated in 1980.
Exactly how much Zhang learned about modern economics during his days in North Korea is not clear, but the Korean knowledge is known to have helped his career.
His leadership positions in Yanbian caught the eyes of top leaders, with his skilful handling of the sensitive issue of illegal North Korean immigrants.
In March 1990, then party secretary Jiang Zemin visited North Korea to rally support for an internationally isolated China. Zhang accompanied him and was promoted to deputy party secretary of Jilin shortly after Jiang's visit.
In October the same year, Zhang was called to Beijing for a high-profile meeting with Jiang, who openly praised him for his work and asked him to turn Yanbian into a 'model prefecture' for the nation. His political career has been on the fast track ever since.
He became party secretary of Jilin in 1995 and party secretary of Zhejiang in 1998, and the province grew more affluent during his tenure.
A controversial leader after taking charge of Guangdong in 2002 - a position he held for five years - Zhang has been applauded for spearheading integration of the pan-Pearl River Delta, but he has come under attack for his uncompromising stance in suppressing press freedoms and social protests.
Many have speculated that his position in Guangdong was made possible by Jiang. Zhang has been widely viewed as owing his political rise to the patronage of the former leader, but is not regarded as belonging to the 'Shanghai gang' of officials brought to Beijing by Jiang.
His detractors portray him as an ultra-conservative whose political rise is more the result of good relationships with top leaders than real achievements. The detractors hold him responsible for the social and political disturbances in Guangdong and an inadequate response to the Sars outbreak in 2003.
Guangdong has also witnessed a rising wave of rural unrest, with up to 20 people believed to have been killed in Dongzhou village in 2005 when police fired into a crowd protesting against inadequate land compensation. He was appointed vice-premier in 2008.