Rare pick from within as Gao Hucheng gets key economic job

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 March, 2013, 7:01am

Gao Hucheng, an experienced international negotiator and a former senior business executive, will replace Chen Deming as commerce minister.

The 61-year-old, fluent French speaker, faces tough challenges after the country's trade growth missed the official target last year and turned in its worst performance since the global financial crisis.

A deputy commerce minister since 2003 and international trade representative since 2010, Gao's appointment is part of a major cabinet reshuffle under a new government.

His promotion from within the ministry rather than Beijing's usual practice of appointing someone from the vast pool of provincial leaders shows the central government recognises his ability to run an agency that is crucial to economic development.

Unlike Chen, 64, who climbed the political ladder mostly through provincial and central government positions, Gao has experience in both the government and business sectors, including serving as a deputy general manager at China Resources Enterprise in the 1990s.

Gao will need to stabilise exports even as the West remains stuck in a protracted recession and cope with rising trade frictions with other countries.

He also faces rising domestic calls to boost the services industry and domestic consumption, tasks critical to Beijing's long-term goal of cutting reliance on foreign trade and fixed-asset investment as drivers of the economy.

"As China's export competitiveness shrinks, Gao's ministry will face greater pressures to meet Beijing's trade targets," said Zhang Zhiwei, chief China economist for Nomura. "He will need to find new growth engines through upgrading technologies and boosting services exports."

Over the next decade, China could face international friction from a range of countries, including emerging markets competing with it to attract foreign investment, such as Brazil, Argentina and Indonesia, Zhang said. Gao's expertise in trade talks would play "an important role" in such conflicts.

Born in Shanxi, Gao studied at Zaire National University's college of literature. After working at China's embassy in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he was a deputy general manager of the French branch of the China National Machinery and Equipment Import Export Corporation from 1982 to 1987, simultaneously earning a doctorate in sociology from the University of Paris in 1985.

Gao was appointed a deputy trade minister after serving as a vice-chairman of the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region from 2002 to 2003.