Chinese officials on the fast track are sometimes said to be 'riding a helicopter', so fast is their ascent through the ranks. For Guangdong party secretary Li Changchun, 58, 'riding a rocket' could be more appropriate. In 1983, aged just 39, Mr Li became the youngest mayor and party secretary of a major city, Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning province. Three years later the Dalian native and 1966 graduate of Harbin Polytechnic University, with a degree in electrical engineering, moved to Liaoning's provincial headquarters as governor. Again he was the youngest person to hold such a rank. Today, after 12 years in the field as either a provincial governor or party secretary, Mr Li is the youngest member of the Central Committee's Politburo. His star has, however, faded a little of late. Once regarded as a possible successor to Premier Zhu Rongji, a vice-premiership is now considered more likely. Considered a protege of President Jiang Zemin, Mr Li remains a strong contender for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee at the 16th Party Congress. Two factors are believed to have played against Mr Li. They are his lack of experience in Beijing, and the impression that wherever he has served a mess has followed. Shenyang, where he worked as mayor and Liaoning governor from 1983 to 1990, was much later revealed to be a den of corruption, with many officials being paid off by local mobsters. Similarly, Mr Li's tenure as governor and party secretary in Henan province from 1990 to 1998 was followed by revelations of high-level corruption. During his service in Guangdong as party secretary, since March 1998, at least three major scandals have erupted. These include the crackdown on what was then China's largest smuggling ring in the port city of Zhanjiang in late 1998; the October 1998 closure and subsequent bankruptcy of Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corp (Gitic) with debts of about US$4 billion (HK$31.2 billion); and last year's crushing of a giant value-added-tax fraud ring in Shantou. However, these crackdowns also can be argued to be evidence of a job well done by Mr Li. Replacing the long-serving Guangdong native Xie Fei, Mr Li was seen as Beijing's man with a mandate to re-assert control over the unruly province. Even as head of the provincial party branch it was not an easy job, given the lack of direct command provincial authorities have over the cities supposedly under their control. One crackdown Mr Li cannot easily take credit for relates to the bankruptcy of Gitic. Though initially a huge potential liability to the central government, foreign creditors were successfully fobbed off, receiving back just a fraction of their loans to the trust and its subsidiaries. This triumph was due largely to the tough stance taken by former Guangdong executive vice-governor Wang Qishan, another northerner sent down by Mr Zhu specifically to manage the financial crisis. Provincial officials were glad to see the back of Mr Wang in December 2000, when he was rewarded for his efforts with a promotion back to Beijing as head of the State Council's Office for Economic Restructuring. They will probably feel the same when Mr Li goes, even though technically he is the only representative Guangdong has at the highest levels of power in Beijing.