18th Party Congress

Wang Qishan: the mainland's economic reformer in waiting

Like his mentor Zhu Rongji, Wang Qishan is known as a problem solver. Many say his next task is prying the economy further open

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 May, 2016, 5:00pm

Symbolism can matter a great deal in politics, and Vice-Premier Wang Qishan's similarities to his political mentor, Zhu Rongji, have helped boost his popularity among party officials and ordinary citizens.

With similar personalities, working styles and political careers, Wang and former premier Zhu, a respected reformist, have even shared many nicknames, including problem solver, fire-brigade captain, crisis manager and troubleshooter.

Both have been described as straight-talking, dynamic and decisive, rare traits in Chinese officialdom, where talking the talk while doing nothing is the safest path to promotion.

Wang, who is responsible for overseeing the financial sector and foreign trade and who has built up quite a reputation in recent years as the point man for China's economic integration with the global economy, was once seen as Vice-Premier Li Keqiang's closest rival in the race to become the next premier.

With Li, President Hu Jintao's protégé, set to take over from Wen Jiabao as premier next year, party insiders say Wang is most likely to be appointed executive vice-premier in charge of finance, trade, overall macroeconomic policy and reform. Speculation had also been rife lately that Wang was to become the top legislator, as he made a rare appearance last week at a Standing Committee session of the National People's Congress.

Although his future portfolio has seemingly not yet been finalised, Wang is almost certain to be promoted to the party's top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, at this autumn's congress. Analysts say that whatever portfolio Wang is given, he will bring to it decades of experience in economics and banking and a long record of successful troubleshooting.

Many nostalgic officials and economists think he is the best candidate to become the mainland's next economic tsar, another role formerly filled by Zhu.

Reformers hold high hopes that Wang will bring about real change and revive market reforms, which they believe have largely stalled for the past decade under the current administration. During his time as economic tsar, Zhu took credit for fighting corruption, shaking up the centrally planned economy, overhauling the state business sector and securing entry to the World Trade Organisation.

Since his elevation to the Politburo at the 17th party congress in 2007 and his promotion to vice-premier in March 2008, Wang has played a crucial role in steering China's economy through the global financial crisis in 2008 and the ongoing European sovereign-debt crisis.

Western bankers, lawyers and analysts say they believe that he is likely to be a progressive voice, unafraid to push for liberalisation in sensitive areas, such as accelerating market-oriented changes to China's exchange-rate mechanism, and further opening financial services to foreign companies.

"His policy priority is the liberalisation of China's financial system, high rates of gross domestic product growth, and tax reforms for central and local governments," said Cheng Li, a research director at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"His track record, together with his personality, makes him an ideal candidate to take care of China's economy in the era of globalisation, and facilitate reform of the financial system."

Talking about a way out of the global financial crisis, Wang spoke of the need for two hands: not just Adam Smith's invisible hand of the marketplace, but also the hand of government. In negotiations with foreign leaders, he stressed the need for government support.

Since the emergence of the crisis, Wang has strengthened his influence among government economic agencies, and he now plays a significant role in spearheading macroeconomic policies, according to one top government official.

"Wang emulates Zhu's style, and this symbolism has boosted his popularity within and outside the establishment," said a senior banking official who once worked under Wang.

Wang was born in the coastal city of Qingdao , Shandong , where his father worked as an urban-planning engineer. During the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, Wang, like many young people and intellectuals, was sent to the countryside. He lived in the impoverished county of Yanan, Shaanxi, from 1969 to 1971.

Wang, who studied history at Northwest University in Xian, Shaanxi's capital, worked at a provincial museum before going to Beijing in 1979. There he studied at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the government's leading think tank, where he began research on rural economic reform. That led to his first job in finance: working for a rural trust-and-investment company.

While he is generally considered a reformist official, he is also a princeling - the well-connected son of a former leader. Wang's father was party chief of Shanxi province and his father-in-law, Yao Yilin, was a vice-premier.

Wang has earned a reputation as a troubleshooter, ready to come to the rescue in any emergency, and has also proven his technocratic mettle in key positions in regional governments and central government agencies over the decades.

However, he owes his rise primarily to Zhu, who promoted him to deputy governor of the central bank from 1993 to 1994, when Zhu was its governor. Zhu later made Wang head of state-owned China Construction Bank from 1996 to 1997.

Zhu also gave Wang the task of cleaning up the financial mess in Guangdong in the late 1990s. As provincial vice-governor from 1998 to 2000, he oversaw the cleaning up of the troubled trust sector following the 1998 collapse of Guangdong International Trust and Investment and the restructuring of Guangdong Investment, the two government investment arms.

Zhu later called on Wang to head the central government's Economic Restructuring Office. Then, in a brief stint as Hainan's provincial party chief, Wang overhauled the island's economy, transforming it into an all-season holiday destination after years of being plagued by rampant property speculation and widespread corruption.

He was parachuted into Beijing during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome scare to clean up the city's image after mayor Meng Xuenong was sacked for covering up the crisis. He ordered daily public updates and status reports, helping China regain international credibility after months of government reticence and obfuscation.

"He didn't want to hear the sweet music. He was ready to do some straight talking," said Dr Hendrik Bekedam, the World Health Organisation's representative in China at the time. He said Wang gave WHO officials unprecedented access to data about the disease.

As mayor of Beijing, Wang took aim at over-the-top billboards for expensive housing projects, and told Beijingers to stop bad habits such as spitting, shouting and pushing in time for the 2008 Olympics. He was one of three executive presidents of the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games.

"He's respected as an economist, and has had a career in Guangdong and then Beijing," said Dr Kerry Brown, head of the Asia programme at the Chatham House think tank in London.

A Guangdong official said Wang had impressed those who had worked with him and even those who had only met him briefly, irrespective of whether they liked him or not.

Wang also boasts good ties in the West, which could serve him in good stead if, as expected, he takes on responsibility for high-level economic talks with Washington and Brussels.

He has developed relations with some of the world's most important financial and banking leaders over the years, including former US treasury secretary Henry Paulson, who calls Wang a friend. The two men met when Paulson was still at the Goldman Sachs Group and Wang was the head of one of China's biggest state-run banks.

"He's a man of enormous capabilities," Paulson said. "He understands markets, he understands people. He knows how to communicate. I don't speak Chinese, he doesn't speak English, but he's very easy for me to communicate with."

Brown, from Chatham House, said: "He has been the face of China to the US, and therefore to much of the world, through heading the strategic economic dialogue. He's shown in his dealings over a difficult time with the US that he can be pragmatic but hard edged."

Harley Seyedin, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in South China, who identified Wang as a rising star in a 1994 newspaper commentary, said Wang had proven his "ability to produce optimal outcomes" in various positions over the past two decades.

"I am supremely confident he will help build a future characterised by sustainable economic growth, increased integration with the global economy and a continuation of the opening up that has been a cornerstone China's success for the past 30 years," Seyedin said.

Perhaps he is the man to break new ground, as his mentor did more than a decade ago.

He does not appear to be afraid of the challenge, once telling The Wall Street Journal: "Frankly speaking, we are heading on a path never tried before."