Close associate of Xi Jinping tipped to head China’s top planning agency, sources say

Move seen as part of president’s attempts to consolidate his power base ahead of a Communist Party Congress later this year

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 1:06pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 11:30pm

A close associate of President Xi Jinping is tipped to take over China’s all-powerful state planning agency, according to people familiar with the matter.

The National Development and Reform Commission is known as the mini cabinet because of its extensive powers, from setting petrol prices to approving airport construction.

The likely appointment of He Lifeng as head of the agency, who has been a deputy minister at the commission since 2014, is viewed as part of a broader effort by Xi to consolidate his power ahead of a crucial Communist Party congress late this year.

“He Lifeng will take over from Xu Shaoshi in a couple of days,” a Beijing-based source close to the government told the South China Morning Post on Wednesday.

The source added that a spate of personnel changes might also involve leaders at the justice and commerce ministries.

Two other sources, who declined to be named, also independently confirmed He’s appointment.

Xu has led the NDRC since 2013 and is retiring. He rose through the ranks of the Ministry of Land and Resources over a career spanning more than 30 years.

In another move, mainland news outlet Caixin reported ­yesterday that Shandong governor Guo Shuqing would be the new head of the China Banking Regulatory Commission.

The NDRC is deemed a “super ministry” and has the job of mapping out the mainland’s overall ­economic direction, including annual and five-year plans.

Its other roles include formulating policy and overseeing some industries.

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Analysts said that by promoting a close associate to head the agency, Xi would further tighten his grip over a portfolio that traditionally falls within the jurisdiction of the country’s premier.

The appointment comes as the world’s second-largest economy faces increasing uncertainty over its model for growth. Expansion has slowed significantly from the double-digit pace seen over the past decade to 6.7 per cent last year, the weakest showing in a quarter of a century.

He Lifeng worked in the southeast province of Fujian from 1984 to 2009, while President Xi served in various key roles in the same province between 1985 and 2002 before he was made governor of Zhejiang province.

He Lifeng was the party’s top official in three of the province’s biggest cities - Quanzhou, Fuzhou and Xiamen.

He was transferred to Tianjin in 2009 and was made party chief of the city’s Binhai New Area, as well as the city’s deputy party chief and chairman of its political advisory body.

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Xi has promoted several close aides and former colleagues he met earlier in his career, with many of the relationships dating to his time working in the relatively small provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang.

Analysts said the promotion was the latest move by Xi to consolidate his power before a leadership reshuffle at the 19th party congress.

Five of the seven Politburo Standing Committee members – barring Xi and Premier Li Keqiang – are due to step down. Six members of the 25-strong Politburo will also go.

A party plenum last October designated Xi as “core leader”, putting him on par with late leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.