Where was Li Keqiang at the opening ceremony of Shanghai free-trade zone?
Absence of Premier Li Keqiang and other top officials at the launch of Shanghai hub shows that the road to change will not be a smooth one
About two months ago, I wrote a column saying the Shanghai free-trade zone was to be a showcase for Premier Li Keqiang's ambitious economic reforms.
I was partly right. In fact, the free-trade zone may not just be about Li's economic ambitions; it may also be a reflection of the competition between the reformers and the conservatives in high-level mainland politics.
Who wins in this planned first round of economic reforms - centred on Shanghai's free-trade zone - will signal the mainland's political direction in the coming years, if not decades.
Yesterday, the zone was officially launched. To the disappointment of some, the highest-ranking official from Beijing at the ceremony in the new zone was Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng.
"Where is Li Keqiang? Where is Vice-Premier Wang Yang? Where is central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan?" Those were the most-asked questions among Shanghai officials as well as on the internet, where some northerners took the chance to tease the Shanghainese, saying the zone might not be so important, after all.
So, where was Li? Why didn't he go to Shanghai or even bother to send one of his deputies, such as Wang, to the launch? All the three financial industry regulators - for banking, securities and insurance - sent only vice-chairmen rather than their No1 bosses to the ceremony. Why?
Wasn't it strange, if the free-trade zone is as important as the State Council makes it out to be?
My government sources said Li was invited to attend the ceremony and was initially interested in going. The Shanghai Hongqiao State Guest Hotel was prepared to receive him again. Li stayed at the hotel when he visited Shanghai in March, right after he took office, and he quickly helped to launch the plan for the free-trade zone.
The zone is widely considered to be Li's baby. Now the baby was born, but its father was not present.
We understand it is not easy for Li to make Shanghai the place to kick off the long-awaited economic reforms, which some analysts expect will lead to deeper and more sensitive political reforms sooner or later. After all, politics and the economy are never far apart on the mainland.
The Post exclusively reported in July that Li faced open opposition from conservative financial regulators. Our sources said Li lost his temper at one closed-door cabinet session. When told of the continuing opposition to his plans, he slammed his fist on the table in frustration.
When the Post reported that Beijing planned to lift the ban on sensitive foreign websites like Facebook and Twitter - but only in the free-trade zone - the official People's Daily quickly ran a denial on its website. However, the denial was later withdrawn. In the official release of the new rules for the free-trade zone, the State Council did say foreign telecommunications firms can apply to the cabinet for special permission to offer certain services that may not be in line with existing local regulations.
The free-trade zone has been launched, and all eyes will be on how free it will be allowed to be. If Shanghai fails, the mainland may find it difficult to win back trust from foreign investors. Good luck, Premier Li!
George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in the print version of the SCMP. Like it? Visit facebook.com/mrshangkong