Ministry of Electronics Industry (MEI) head Hu Qili may step down during the 15th Communist Party Congress starting in Beijing on Friday in order to help run an NEC/MEI joint venture semiconductor manufacturing plant near Shanghai, according to industry and media sources. Liu Jianfeng, one of the MEI's vice-ministers, is tipped to be the leading contender to take over the minister's position, a powerful spot which has seen President Jiang Zemin at the helm. There also is speculation that the MEI, which oversees most of the mainland's high-technology industry, will be commercialised by Beijing authorities. Held every five years, the Communist Party Congress serves as a high-profile launch of government policies and personnel decisions on the mainland. A former politburo member who fell from grace after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, Mr Hu was appointed MEI minister in 1993, at the same time the MEI was re-established having been abolished and merged into the Ministry of Machinery and Electronics Industry from 1988 to 1993. He has been credited with the rapid modernisation of the electronics industry on the mainland. During his tenure, the MEI has helped push forward the 'three golden projects', which will transform the mainland's telecommunications and networking infrastructure into one of the most advanced in the world. Mr Hu also promoted Unicom, the second-largest telecom operator on the mainland and owned by the MEI. Unicom broke the telecom monopoly held by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. Mr Hu, who according to official biographies turns 68 this year, is said to be leaving the MEI because he is nearing retirement age. If he joins Shanghai Hua Hong, the NEC/MEI joint-venture, Mr Hu will oversee one of the most ambitious ventures yet undertaken on the mainland. The company's US$1 billion fabrication plant is expected to produce 20,000 eight-inch wafers a month for memory and logic chips starting in September 1999. Mr Hu has been reported saying China's semiconductor industry was holding back growth in other sectors of the electronics industry. The MEI forecast the gross production value of the mainland electronics industry would increase 20 per cent from last year to 360 billion yuan (about HK$334.51 billion) this year, the China Daily reported. Industry sales would rise 23 per cent this year to 240 billion yuan, the paper said. Annual demand for electronic products on the mainland would exceed 400 billion yuan by the end of the Ninth Five-Year Plan (1996-2000). Mr Hu's potential successor, Mr Liu, is a 61-year-old engineer from Tianjin. He is chairman of Unicom, and was vice-minister of the MEI in 1984-88 and a top candidate for Mr Hu's job in 1993. Mr Liu is said to be good friends with Mr Jiang, who was his boss as the minister of the MEI from 1983-85. Before becoming an MEI vice-minister in 1993, Mr Liu was the governor of Hainan province. There also is speculation that the government may commercialise the MEI in order to transfer the ministry's regulatory authority closer to the State Council and away from bureaucrats, according to a report in Computerworld Hong Kong. The move would not be unprecedented, as in 1992 the government converted the Ministry of Aerospace into a private corporation. Computer companies refused to comment to Computerworld Hong Kong on the possible impact on doing business in China's IT industry if any of the changes in the MEI took place. There may be a formal announcement at the Congress, which will open this Friday and is expected to last for up to a week.