Hu Jintao

Beijing party boss Guo Jinlong a populist politician who's star is rising

Guo Jinlong was a populist politician until the catastrophic Beijing floods this summer, but after shielding Hu from blame, his star is rising

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 2:52pm

Guo Jinlong, a shrewd political survivor and former athlete, found himself in the eye of a storm within days of his appointment as Beijing party chief in early July.

Widely perceived as a loyal henchman of Communist Party general secretary Hu Jintao, Guo, 65, was promoted to party boss of the capital on July 3 after less than five years as the capital's mayor. His emergence as a surprise, early winner of the behind-the-scenes horse trading added intrigue in the lead-up to this year's once-a-decade leadership transition.

But before he could savour the limelight, he was embroiled in a major crisis - and one of the toughest tests of his political career - over a deadly rainstorm.

The heaviest downpour to hit the capital in almost six decades battered Beijing just 18 days after he became party secretary, flooding large swathes of the vast metropolis, triggering landslides on its mountainous outskirts and leaving at least 79 people dead.

Although the authorities claimed it was a natural disaster of unprecedented scale, the unusually heavy toll in a city that hosted the Olympics just four years ago and often boasts of its modern infrastructure sparked nationwide outcry.

Breaking with form, the usually tame state-run media questioned the human errors that had exacerbated the disaster, including the authorities' failure to fix the city's outdated drainage system.

Personally, Guo faced scathing criticism over his government's inept response to the rainstorm, despite an accurate weather forecast a day earlier, and the clumsy handling of its aftermath under a blanket of secrecy.

The authorities were accused of underreporting the human cost of the deadliest disaster to hit the capital in more than 30 years, after the death toll was pointedly not updated for nearly a week.

Their response to the rain might have been sluggish, but the authorities were lightning fast in banning public displays of mourning, scaling down media coverage and removing online discussions from popular microblogging sites. Appeals for serious soul searching about the city's reckless expansion and inadequate infrastructure were flatly rejected.

Online the few daring voices questioning Guo's leadership and scattered calls for his resignation were quickly censored.

The clampdown on public opinion backfired into a full-blown crisis. Not only was Guo's carefully crafted image as a populist shaken, but the credibility of his political patron, party general secretary Hu Jintao, was at stake.

In a counter-assault, Guo was seen on local television working late at flood control headquarters, eating instant noodles at emergency meetings the night the disaster hit and visiting storm-struck villages in the following days. Still, public distrust remained high.

Crumbling confidence in the municipal government was obvious when an official appeal for donations to help with disaster relief was met with boycotts.

"We want to help, but can we trust the government this time given its lack of accountability and transparency and reports of widespread misuse of donations and public funding?" asked one microblogger in a posting that was soon deleted.

The central government was entangled in the crisis, too, as questions emerged over where top leaders had been as the disaster unfolded and local authorities struggled to cope.

State leaders kept resolutely tight-lipped about the disaster that occurred right under their noses. None stepped outside their secluded city centre leadership compounds to visit disaster-stricken suburbs.

Yet, Guo appears to have escaped unscathed. Analysts say his political loyalty and willingness to shoulder the bulk of the blame will not go unrewarded.

For Professor Hu Xingdou, a Beijing-based political observer, it was another case of the much-touted official accountability amounting to empty promises.

"Although losing in the court of public opinion, Guo will not be affected because his loyalty to Hu has paid off. In mainland politics, loyalty is always valued over competence," he said.

Professor Zhu Lijia, of the Chinese Academy of Governance, lay the blame for the death toll at the authorities' door, after failures to review previous rainstorms which hit the city almost every summer.

"Apparently, local officials who are obsessed with blatant publicity stunts and vanity projects are too busy to upgrade the inadequate drainage system and other infrastructure. Are they really up to the challenge of running this city of over 20 million?" Zhu asked.

Despite Guo hitting the supposedly mandatory retirement age of 65 in July, his promotion has extended his political life by at least five years and will win him a seat on the Politburo at this year's national party congress. His elevation to the capital's top post is also seen as a calculated move by Hu to wield influence through his allies after his retirement and to cement his legacy.

While Guo's new job will frequently put him in the international media spotlight, it is not always an envious position.

But as an aficionado of the traditional Chinese board game Go, which emphasises complex strategy and great patience, this is a politician who certainly knows when to talk in clichés, which lofty promises to renew and, crucially, how to toe the party line.

In a speech after his promotion, Guo said: "We are keenly aware of our difficult task and grave responsibility. We must strive to deliver satisfactory results for all the people of Beijing."

He may have learned from his predecessor, 70-year-old Liu Qi, an unpopular apparatchik who retired last month after a decade as the capital's party chief.

Despite working together for the past five years, overseeing the hosting of the Olympics and warding off public criticism about the city's filthy air, notorious traffic congestion and high housing prices, Liu and Guo were believed to be at odds.

The problem was Liu's management style, often described by government insiders as "very hands-on and dominant".

"Liu Qi was always in the background and any 'important' decision had to be approved by him, making decision-making very bureaucratic and slow," said Gilbert van Kerckhove, a Beijing-based former adviser to the city's Olympic organisers.

Liu was a rigid official, who served as an ally for former party general secretary Jiang Zemin and his protégé Jia Qinglin - also a former Beijing party boss - but he often landed himself in controversies.

Just days after he stepped down, Liu ruffled feathers when he visited Changbai Mountain in Jilin province .

He made the appearance in his new capacity as a deputy chief of a party committee promoting socialist culture and ideology, a largely ceremonial post.

But the visit forced the national mountain park to be closed for hours during a busy weekend and was met by thousands of frustrated tourists.

Liu's entourage was reportedly besieged by protesters, with photos of the chaotic scenes posted online.

Guo, by contrast, was "low-key … even a bit bland", according to Van Kerckhove.

"I met him a couple of times … Guo was always smooth, soft-spoken and rather professional in his declarations," he said.

A native of Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Guo graduated from the University of Nanjing in 1969, majoring in physics. He was then sent to a mountain town in the heart of the Three Gorges during the height of the Cultural Revolution, and spent the next 16 years rising through the party ranks.

He started as a technician with an electricity bureau in Zhong county, then part of Sichuan and now under the administration of Chongqing.

Guo, who used to play volleyball for his alma mater, was also chosen to become the county's first coach of the sport in 1973.

While little information is available about the four years he served as volleyball coach, several mainland media have cited this period as a proof of his athleticism, rarely seen among mainland bureaucrats.

Then in 1983 major promotion called. Guo was appointed county chief. Former county party chief Huang Dengyin later recalled Guo as a "well-educated and capable" cadre, who was good at resolving disputes among officials and departments, the Southern People Weekly reported.

He left Zhong county in 1985 and became party chief of Leshan, Sichuan, in 1990.

In 1993, a year after he was elected to the provincial party committee in Sichuan, Guo was transferred to Tibet as deputy party secretary. He became the autonomous region's party boss seven years later.

It is believed that his unusually long 11-year stint in the restive Himalayan region, and his performance there, was Guo's calling card with Hu - he had also spent four years as Tibet party secretary between 1988 and 1992.

But unlike Hu, and most other Han Chinese cadres who advocated a hard-line approach on such issues as religious freedom for Tibetans and worship of the Dalai Lama, Guo was known as being more pragmatic, shifting his focus from political sticks to economic carrots.

It was under his watch that Tibet began to see massive inflows of state subsidies, including the building of the Qinghai-Tibet rail link, which started in 2001, and a growing financial reliance on Beijing under the central government's economic integration policies.

The improvements in material prosperity were far from enough to win the hearts and minds of Tibetans, but Guo's time as the region's top official between 2000 and 2004 was viewed as relatively calm in comparison with those of his predecessors and successors, including Hu, which had been largely marred by conflicts and riots.

At the end of 2004, he was appointed party secretary of Anhui, Hu's home province, before moving on to the capital in November 2007, first as an acting mayor. Two months later he formally took over from Wang Qishan, as Beijing stepped up final preparations for the Olympics.

The move, again orchestrated by Hu, was later described by many as stealing the fruits of the Olympic preparations from Wang, who had run Beijing since 2003 and was later elevated to vice-premier.

Whether the fruits of greater party power now lay in store for Guo still remains to be seen.