The tenacious political survivor tipped for key economic role among China’s ruling elite

Shanghai party boss Han Zheng, along with two new ministers, could form Xi Jinping’s economic team in the cabinet

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 March, 2017, 11:33am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 March, 2017, 3:34am

Shanghai Communist Party boss Han Zheng is one of the top contenders for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee later this year, following in the footsteps of other leaders of China’s commercial capital.

It would prove that persistence pays off, with the 63-year-old not even counted among potential dark horses a decade ago when political analysts were compiling lists of rising political stars on the mainland.

If he does secure a seat on the innermost Politburo Standing Committee at the party’s national congress this autumn he is likely to succeed Zhang Gaoli as the country’s top-ranked vice-premier, charged with overseeing economic development and environmental protection.

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“Secretary Han certainly has the calibre to take a higher position given his track record and proven ability to lead the mainland’s most developed metropolis,” said a Shanghai-based think tank researcher who has advised senior party officials on ideological work. “Local officials are hopeful that their boss will be promoted.”

If Han does move to Beijing as executive vice-premier he will be working with new ministers close to party general secretary Xi Jinping. He Lifeng, a close associate of Xi, was named last week as chairman of China’s powerful planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission. Zhong Shan, who had also worked under Xi previously, was promoted at the same time to minister of commerce, responsible for overseeing China’s massive export machine.

The next executive vice-premier and the two key cabinet members will be tasked with helping the leadership steer China away from the “middle-income trap” – a common problem in developing economies that sees growth fizzle after incomes reach a certain level.

Han’s track record shows he should be able to fill Zhang’s shoes, with Shanghai leading the country in moving away from an industry-focused, growth-obsessed economic model to a cleaner, service-based one on his watch.

While Shanghai is no longer as dominant a player in the mainland economy as it once was, its growth model and its role as a laboratory for reforms remain important. China’s free-trade zone trials, especially the country’s most important financial liberalisation trials, have taken place in Shanghai, and Shanghai is one of only two cities in China with a property tax pilot scheme, an experiment that may reshape China’s fiscal landscape in the future. The city remains a bustling financial, shipping and commercial centre even though policymaking is concentrated in Beijing.

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Shanghai’s local economic growth last year exceeded the national average for the first time in eight years.

“Shanghai’s Communist Party committee, under the leadership of Han, showed their understanding of the directions by the central leadership,” said Xu Mingqi, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “The city’s economic growth didn’t appear to be exciting, but the city leaders were trying to maintain Shanghai’s locomotive status with a focus on service sectors. We should give him credit for achieving stable growth.”

But Li Weiguang, a professor of public finance at Tianjin University of Finance and Economics, said Han had failed to live up to Beijing’s expectations and develop Shanghai’s free-trade zone into a bustling marketplace on par with Hong Kong.

“After all, development of free-trade zones in Shanghai and other regions won’t progress unless the ministry-level authorities are determined to liberalise the financial markets,” he said.

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Han’s prospects looked very different in 2008, when he was Shanghai’s mayor and it seemed his political career was coming to an end in the wake of a pension fund scandal that had toppled Shanghai party secretary Chen Liangyu, his immediate boss, two years earlier.

Chen was jailed for 18 years on corruption charges but Han proved to be a political survivor despite speculation in 2008 that he would move sideways to another provincial-level region due to the central leadership’s dissatisfaction with the Shanghai bureaucracy.

According to two government sources, Yu Zhengsheng, now chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, urged Beijing to keep Han in Shanghai because he was the right person to lead the city’s economic development.

Yu was Shanghai’s party secretary at the time, having moved to the city after six years as the party boss of Hubei province.

Han served as Shanghai’s acting party secretary for six months after Chen’s downfall in 2006 and then spent a year as mayor of the city under Xi, who was party secretary before Yu.

Unlike most political stars in the party’s orbit, who normally rise by rotating through backwater postings followed by a stint in a second-tier city, Han has spent his entire career in Shanghai.

He became head of the Communist Youth League committee at a state-owned petrochemical factory in 1980, getting his political career off to a good start, before becoming party chief of the city’s bustling, downtown Luwan district from 1992 to 1995.

After gaining experience at state-owned companies and district-level authorities, he was promoted to become a vice-mayor of Shanghai in 1998.

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When Han was nominated as mayor of Shanghai in 2003, he became the youngest person to hold the post in 50 years.

Local officials describe Han as a cautious cadre with a mild temper, and say he did not appear to have high political ambitions after the pension fund scandal.

His in-depth knowledge of Shanghai’s local bureaucracy and business realm helped him effectively lead the city’s economic development during his nine years as mayor, but his upward mobility was called into question due to his lack of experience elsewhere.

“He is obedient to top bosses in Beijing and tries to make sure local policies are in compliance with the leadership’s directives,” a local government official said. “It’s an open secret among the Shanghai bureaucracy that political correctness is a priority for secretary Han.”

Since 2003, when he became mayor, Han has been credited with the successful running of the World Expo in 2010, the launch of the mainland’s first free-trade zone in 2012, and the opening of its first Disney theme park last year. Along the way he continued efforts to transform Shanghai into a global financial centre and began the task of turning it into a hi-tech innovation hub.

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“Comrade Han is resolute in enforcing the party line and is able to keep pace with the party’s leadership,” Yu said on November 20, 2012, when Han’s appointment as Shanghai party boss was announced at a government conference. “He has abundant experience and knowledge about the party and economic work.”

The only Shanghai party secretary since 1989 not to have gone on to promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee was Chen. Those who made the jump successfully were Xi, former president Jiang Zemin, Yu, former premier Zhu Rongji, former National People’s Congress chairman Wu Bangguo and late vice-premier Huang Ju.