Wang Qishan
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Wang Qishan, the former secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, was the public face of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. Photo: Reuters

Will Wang Qishan become Xi Jinping’s go-to man as Chinese vice-president?

Deng Yuwen says the retired anti-corruption chief appears ready to make a political comeback after being named an NPC deputy. If this trusted aide to Xi is made vice-president, he may be tasked with tackling some of the country’s most difficult problems

Wang Qishan
Other than Xi Jinping, perhaps no other Chinese Communist Party official draws as much attention from the outside world as Wang Qishan. Even though he has retired, there remains much speculation about his future.
Late last month, Wang was included in the roster of Hunan legislators who will attend the national legislature meeting in March. The news appears to confirm speculation that he would take up a key post at the annual “two sessions”. Just weeks after he stepped down from the powerful Politburo Standing Committee at the 19th party congress last October, some in the media are speculating that the former anti-corruption chief will soon be named China’s vice-president.
Whether or not Wang is made vice-president, it is rare for a retired official to become a deputy to the National People’s Congress.

One exception was Wang Zhen, the retired party veteran who became a deputy to the NPC in 1988 and was named vice-president. This precedent has fanned speculation that Wang Qishan would follow in his footsteps.

Such speculation should be understood in the context of the leadership reshuffle at the 19th party congress and the party’s changing political ecology over the past five years. Xi has ushered in a new ecology in party politics with his sweeping anti-corruption campaign, and Wang, as the one helming the campaign, turned the anti-graft drive into a weapon for instilling party cadres’ loyalty to Xi. By doing so, he gained Xi’s trust.

Despite retirement, Xi’s right-hand man Wang Qishan is still within arm’s reach

Even before the party congress, there was intense speculation about whether Wang, who has reached retirement age, would stay on. Under the rule of “qi shang ba xia”, members of the Politburo Standing Committee – the party’s highest decision-making body – who are 68 or older may not stay on for another term of office. Some pundits believed Xi may defy this unwritten rule to keep Wang.

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Wang did step down in the end, but rumours of his continuing influence still swirl. His appointment as an NPC deputy proved that the rumours were not groundless.

If Xi does make Wang vice-president, it would run counter to party convention in the past two decades that only Politburo members are named vice-president. Hu Jintao, Zeng Qinghong and Xi himself were all members of the Politburo Standing Committee when they were vice-president.
One exception was Rong Yiren, who was not known to be a party member but became vice-president in the 1990s under Jiang Zemin.
Then president Jiang Zemin (right) is congratulated by outgoing vice-president Rong Yiren at the National People’s Congress meeting in Beijing in 1998. Jiang was re-elected as president during the session, while Rong was replaced as vice-president by Hu Jintao. Photo: AP / Xinhua

In Wang’s case, it seems this convention could be more easily broken than the “qi shang ba xia” rule for Politburo Standing Committee members, which even a leader as powerful as Xi did not try to abolish.

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According to the constitution, any Chinese citizen aged above 45 could be elected to the vice-presidency. Thus, the naming of Wang in that role would comply with the constitution. People who oppose the appointment cannot say it is illegal.

In China, the vice-presidency is largely a ceremonial role. The incumbent’s job is to assist the president. If Wang is vice-president, he could be trusted to perform whatever duties Xi needs him to.

Wang Qishan’s apparent comeback on the political stage makes clear his importance to Xi. In a way, their destinies are bound together. Xi may well use Wang to carry out some specific duties, such as pushing for reform, dealing with the United States to improve China-US ties, or resolving the national debt crisis.

Wang Qishan is reading about history’s decisive moments, and so should we

With Wang assisting Xi in the next five years, the political situation is expected to become more stable, and any diversion in China’s political direction would become more unlikely.

Deng Yuwen is a researcher at the Charhar Institute think tank. This is translated from Chinese

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Will Wang Qishan become Xi’s go-to man?