18th Party Congress

Tianjin’s party boss Zhang Gaoli readies for limelight

Zhang Gaoli has long preferred to leave the big speeches to others - that's likely to change if he's appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 2:48pm

Tianjin party chief Zhang Gaoli prefers to work away from the spotlight but that may change as momentum builds for making him a member of the Politburo Standing Committee at the upcoming party congress.

His preference to remain low-key was tested recently when Tianjin hosted the World Economic Forum, which saw global business leaders and domestic officials flock to the northern port city to hold discussions under the banner of "Creating the Future Economy".

Zhang, 65, already a member of the Politburo, rarely makes public comments about his personal views and is largely known for his economic policies. However, in the lead-up to the congress, Zhang has been seen as eager to engage with the public and the media more.

He participated in a discussion with internet users in February, saying authorities should respond to the suggestions the public put forward. At a press conference held on the sidelines of the National People's Congress in March, Zhang was relatively garrulous in response to questions about his governing style.

"We need to produce tangible results and let the public benefit," Zhang said. "You are performing only when the public says you are doing well."

Compare that to a press conference last year when he deferred most answers to Tianjin Mayor Huang Xingguo. Zhang's recent change has led to suggestions he is overhauling his personal image to better gain the public's trust ahead of the leadership reshuffle.

Although Zhang remains tight-lipped about his future political career, he did reject outright the possibility he might become a standing committee member. "Anything about the 18th party congress is just speculation," he said in March.

"I am a poor kid. My responsibility is to remain faithful to my job, working honestly for the public and serving the people wholeheartedly."

When Chiang Pin-kung, chairman of the Straits Exchange Foundation, jokingly said in May he hoped Zhang could visit Taiwan before being "promoted", Zhang replied: "I hope I can step back from the front line."

Political observers said Zhang stood a good chance of promotion, not simply because of his policy achievements but also due to his close ties with former leaders, such as Jiang Zemin .

"Zhang keeps a low-profile all the time, and there is little negative news about him," said political commentator Li Datong , former editor at the China Youth Daily.

Hong Kong-based political commentator Johnny Lau Yui-siu said some of Zhang's predecessors, such as Li Ruihuan , could win seats on the Politburo Standing Committee, and Zhang was experienced enough for the job.

"Zhang has not committed any big mistakes over the past years, and that is more important than doing significant works to further advance his political career," he said.

Zhang graduated from Xiamen University in 1970 and went on to work in the oil industry, the power base of former vice-president Zeng Qinghong . He started as a worker in a petroleum company in Maoming , Guangdong province, before becoming its general manager and then deputy party secretary of the city in 1984. Four years later, he was appointed deputy mayor of Guangdong. In 1998, he was made deputy party secretary of Guangdong, and party secretary of Shenzhen, before moving to Shandong in 2001.

One of Zhang's significant achievements while he was posted in Guangdong was the hosting of the first China Hi-Tech Fair in Shenzhen in 1998, according to state media.

During his tenure in Guangdong, Zhang reportedly paid regular visits to Xi Zhongxun , the father of Xi Jinping , who is expected to succeed President Hu Jintao . There was speculation Zhang and Jiang had established close ties, as Jiang made a speech in Maoming in 2000 promoting the "Three Represents" as the guiding principle of the party. The "Three Represents" generally refers to social productive forces, cultural development and political consensus.

Zhang spent about a year in Shandong in 2001 as deputy party secretary and acting mayor and was promoted to party secretary and mayor about a year later. In 2003, he was made chairman of the provincial people's congress standing committee.

While in Shandong, Zhang focused on the province's economic growth, with GDP reaching 2 trillion yuan in 2006. But a year later, Zhang was moved to Tianjin and appointed a member of the Politburo. Explaining the move, He Guoqiang , the then director of the party organisation department, said Zhang had extensive experience in developing coastal areas.

Shortly after Zhang moved to Tianjin, Song Pingshun, former chairman of the municipality consultative conference, committed suicide amid a graft investigation. Zhang said Song had allegedly received bribes and kept mistresses.

Zhang continued to focus on economic development in Tianjin, building the city's financial and aviation businesses. During his tenure, the supercomputer Tianhe-1 was installed in Tianjin.

The GDP of Binhai New Area, located east of the city, grew to exceed that of Shanghai's Pudong. The municipality attracted visits by many state leaders. Last April, President Hu Jintao said during his tour of the municipality it should explore new development opportunities.

About six months later, Xi said in a party cadre meeting that he gave "high marks" to the development of Tianjin and "fully recognised" the achievement of local cadres.

However, unlike his Chongqing counterpart Bo Xilai , who took a high-profile approach showcasing the development of Chongqing and attracted some castigatory attention in the process, Zhang said there was no such thing as a "Tianjin model" that other cities should follow.

"The development of Tianjin cannot be named as a model, and it is not appropriate to promote such a kind of model. We are just doing concrete work in accordance with the scientific development outlook," he said. The remarks were seen as an attempt to avoid having Tianjin overshadow the central authorities.

And about a month after the dismissal of Bo for disciplinary violations, Zhang said party cadres should stick to the party central committee line.

Zhang faced a crisis when a fire swept through a five-storey commercial mall in Jixian county on June 30. Authorities put the death toll at 10, but some internet users estimated 300 people were killed.

But analysts said the incident was unlikely to damage Zhang's political career.