18th Party Congress

The Chinese Communist Party's 18th Congress, held in Beijing November 8-14, 2012, marked a key power transition in China. A new generation of leaders, headed by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, took over from the previous leadership headed by Hu Jintao. The Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee was reduced in number from nine to seven. Unlike his predecessor Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao handed over both the Party General Secretary and Chairman of the Central Military Commission positions to Xi.  

Guangdong's liberal party boss Wang Yang may still be ahead of his time

There seems little doubt that Guangdong's liberal party boss Wang Yang is destined for greater things. But is the party ready for him?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 2:48pm

Few benefited more than Wang Yang when the murder of a British businessman in a Chongqing hotel room late last year triggered a chain of events that ultimately ended the political career of the city's party chief, Bo Xilai.

As the father of "Chongqing model", Bo was seen as the standard bearer for a hardline brand of Communist Party leadership that focused on robust economic growth driven by state-run companies, severe crackdowns on crime and corruption, with a dose of Mao-era nostalgia.

Then, there was Wang, whose relatively liberal, high-toned approach to managing the country's most populous province was dubbed the "Guangdong model". Rather than central planning, Wang stressed personal responsibility, innovation and compromise. Rather than emphasising party pride, Wang told citizens that only they could make themselves happy.

Both men - and thereby both models - were viewed as top contenders for the Politburo's Standing Committee at the upcoming national party congress. Their ascension to the party's uppermost echelons would set up a battle royale between the two visions for the nation's future.

Wang, 57, was believed to have the support of President Hu Jintao ; Bo was thought to have backing from Hu's predecessor, the still influential kingmaker, Jiang Zemin.

Then suddenly Bo was gone, stripped of his Chongqing post and suspended from the Politburo. Wang had seemingly won the fight, without having to throw a punch. Many China watchers now see him as one of two or three contenders competing for the last seat on the Standing Committee.

In recent days, Wang has launched a frenzied campaign to polish his image as a more sensitive brand of leader - promoting Cantonese culture during a trip to Beijing, for instance - while simultaneously burnishing his credentials as a true communist.

Last week, he even visited to the revolutionary cradle of Yanan, in Shaanxi province, to pay homage to the statue of Mao Zedong, a move that appeared designed to counter the concerns of some party hardliners who see him as too liberal. It was as if Wang was telling them: "It's safe to pick me."

It was a lucky coincidence for Wang that Bo's downfall coincided with an event that earned the Guangdong party boss international recognition as an advocate of reform: the rural elections in Wukan.

Last September, villagers furious over government land grabs rose up against local leaders in the coastal Guangdong community. Rather than violently suppressing the protests, as is common practice, Wang removed the despised village officials and negotiated democratic elections. A leading activist was appointed village party boss.

Since taking office in 2007, Wang has led a massive crackdown on corruption resulting in several high-profile convictions, including those of former Guangdong political adviser Chen Shaoji and former Shenzhen mayor Xu Zongheng. The government says the campaign has netted more than 10,000 wayward cadres this year.

Wang has overseen a rise in government transparency, making the provincial capital of Guangzhou the mainland's first city to publish its budget. At times, his reformist rhetoric has taken on an almost Western tone - he appeared to paraphrase the US Declaration of Independence at the provincial party congress in May. "It is the people's right to pursue happiness and it is the responsibility of the party and government to do good for the people," Wang said. "We should eradicate the idea that happiness is a benevolent gift from the party and the government."

Interestingly, Wang's approach has won praise from party organs such as the People's Daily, which called his Wukan fix an act of "political courage". His actions have also earned him an unusual amount of attention from foreign media, academics and diplomats, who see in him hope for a kinder, gentler form of communist rule.

Time magazine cited the Wukan vote in its decision to rank Wang at 74th - 11 spots behind the leader-in-waiting, Vice President Xi Jinping - on its "100 most influential" people list. German Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper paid him a visit this year.

A 2008 US diplomatic cable released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks suggests Wang has caught the eye of Washington, as well. In it, Robert Goldberg, the then-US consul general in Guangzhou, described Wang as "relaxed, confident and very much on top of his brief" during a meeting with top diplomats.

"Sounding like someone with his eye on the prize - [that is] leadership at the national level in 2013 - Wang called on consuls general to work closely and co-operatively with his office and promised to work directly with foreign governments," he said.

Goldberg also described the Guangdong party secretary's style as a "a real change from the far less open attitude of his predecessor" Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang - another top candidate for the Standing Committee.

But some observers cite other moves during Wang's tenure that undercut his reformist image, such as a reported crackdown on the province's relatively free media in the run-up to the national party congress this year.

In June, an investigations editor resigned from The Southern Metropolis News after being suspended for inadvertently posting online comments deemed critical of the government. The previous month, a top official of the provincial propaganda department was installed at the helm of the Nanfang Media Group.

Nanfang Media reporters say they are now on a tighter leash when it comes to meeting foreigners, including diplomats and journalists.

They say more stories are being spiked, including one about a woman who leapt to her death early last month to protest against the forced demolition of her home. The potentially embarrassing suicide happened to coincide with Wang's "happiness" speech to the party.

"Wang has always presented himself as liberal," said Cheng Yizhong , the founder and former editor of The Southern Metropolis News and The Beijing News. "How did he fail to maintain the outspoken tradition of Guangdong media?"

While Wang may be one the mainland's leading voices for reform, analysts note that he is first and foremost a party loyalist. A look at his career shows someone who, though outspoken, has worked well within the system.

Hailing from one of the country's poorest provinces, Anhui, Wang lacks the revolutionary pedigree of the so-called "princeling" party leaders.

He quit school at 17 to work in a food-processing plant. He joined the Communist Party and became a teacher at a re-education camp for intellectuals.

He enrolled in the Central Party School in 1979, just as paramount leader Deng Xiaoping was launching his historic economic reforms. After graduation, he returned to Anhui to teach at a local party school and joined the Communist Youth League, soon to come under the leadership of Hu Jintao. Wang rose quickly through the ranks of government, becoming mayor of Tongling in 1989. At 38, he was appointed vice-governor of Anhui, the youngest at the time. Even then, Wang was gaining a reputation for being outspoken and was quoted at least once urging Beijing to loosen its grip on the economy.

In 1999, he got a chance to participate directly in economic planning when he was made deputy minister of the National Development and Reform Commission under Wen Jiabao , who would soon become the country's premier. Wang was made deputy secretary general of the State Council in 2003.

But Wang did not really start making waves until 2005, when he began a two-year stint as Chongqing party secretary. There, he helped put the western city of 30 million residents on the map for international investors and received praise for helping bring a high-profile demolition stand-off to a tidy end.

Directives ordering the media to focus on the actions of top officials were replaced with an emphasis on common citizens, a change welcomed by reformers.

From there he moved to Guangdong, where Wang made headlines by urging the province to move heavily polluting factories away from urban centres and shift its focus towards hi-tech and service-sector jobs.

He promoted smaller government, presiding over the consolidation of dozens of departments and agencies in cities like Shenzhen and Foshan . He also encouraged civic organisations to pick up the slack, removing party-supervision requirements, and bans on private fund-raising and hiring foreigners.

"The government should surrender the responsibilities and powers, that should not belong to it, to society and the market and concentrate on doing well those things that belong to the government," Wang has said. "[We] should implement a division between government and society."

Although such actions have made him stand out among his peers, analysts contend that Wang's policies are carefully crafted to fit within Hu's doctrines of "scientific development" and "social harmony". Analysts say Wang walks a fine line without crossing his mentor.

"He is someone who likes to test the water and he won't challenge the central leadership if he comes across any pressure," said Dr Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a political science professor at City University. "Wang is a trusted ally of Hu and his policy programme closely follows Hu's vision. He's a reformist, certainly, but there are serious constraints."

Wang's tenure has not been without its problems as the province's export-dependent economy has been battered by the global financial crisis, the European debt crisis and stagnation in the United States. Guangdong's gross domestic product grew 47 per cent to 5.3 trillion yuan (HK$6.9 trillion) during Wang's first four years in office. While still impressive, less than half the growth that his predecessor Zhang Dejiang witnessed over a similar period.

Wang has argued that GDP is the wrong measure of success. His advocacy for a development model that placed more emphasis on political reform and personal well-being than economic growth was a central argument in his debate against Bo.

"Wang Yang looks and feels like he is going in the right direction, though he had been no friend of a free press," said Dr Kerry Brown, of the University of Sydney's China Studies Centre. "In the end, we have nothing solid to say whether Wang is going to be a big reformer in the social-political arena."

Nonetheless, Beijing has repeatedly shown its approval for Wang's approach, feeding speculation that his rise will continue. Last week, a performance of Cantonese singers who accompanied him from Guangdong to Beijing was attended and praised by Standing Committee member Li Changchun.

Just last month, state media praised Guangdong before a two-day visit by Wen that was itself seen as confirmation of central-government support.

The People's Daily ran a seven-page package lauding Guangdong's reform-minded leadership, while CCTV dedicated a prime-time segment to discuss how a provincial effort to cut red tape had received the State Council's endorsement.

"The nod for Guangdong ahead of the party's national congress shows that [Wang] is likely to have won support from top leaders," said Professor Hu Xingdou, a commentator and economist from the Beijing University of Technology.

Analysts believe promotion to chief of the central disciplinary inspection commission or party boss of Beijing would be logical next steps for Wang. But whether he can make it to the Standing Committee this time is uncertain.

The reported decision to cut the all-powerful panel to seven from nine seats means competition for spots will be all the more fierce.

At the moment, some observers believe Tianjin party secretary Zhang Gaoli, a Jiang Zemin ally, has the edge over Wang.

Also working against Wang is his relatively young age. At 57, If he was appointed to the Standing Committee this year, he could theoretically stay on until 2027 - an usually long period at the height of power.

"If [the Standing Committee] stays at nine, I would bet on him making it," said Steve Tsang, of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. Otherwise, Wang's chances of ascension were 50-50, Tsang said.

"His approach or style means that he is not as popular with his immediate colleagues than with the Western media and scholars, as well as a significant part of the Chinese intellectual community," he said.


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