Han Zheng: the Chinese technocrat who rose to the top by staying afloat
Shanghai party chief Han Zheng has survived scandal and disaster to take a place at the highest rungs of power
Han Zheng is one of the new members of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee. Here we examine his path to a seat at the innermost decision-making body:
If Shanghai Communist Party boss Han Zheng has proved anything over the past decade it is that he knows how to navigate choppy waters.
In 2008, Han, then the financial hub’s mayor, looked to be heading for the exit rather than the highest reaches of power, as his immediate boss was ordered to serve 18 years behind bars for his role in the city’s pension fund scandal.
Han had been the youngest person to become Shanghai’s mayor in 2003 but just five years later the mild-mannered teetotaller was rumoured to be on his way to another provincial job in the scandal’s fallout.
Instead, Yu Zhengsheng, Shanghai’s then replacement party chief, encouraged the powers that be in Beijing to keep Han on and eventually succeed him.
Han’s strength, said two local government officials, was his depth of knowledge of China’s commercial capital and its economic development.
Now Han, 63, is following in the footsteps of many of his Shanghai predecessors by taking a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee, the innermost inner circle in China’s political system.
His rise through the ranks started at a state-owned petrochemical factory 1980 when he was appointed head of the company’s Communist Youth League committee, a position once seen as a stepping stone to higher office.
It proved so for Han who went on to become the party chief of Shanghai’s downtown Luwan district, one of the city’s most advanced areas.
Then in 1998, he was promoted to be a city vice-mayor, responsible for overseeing Shanghai’s urban construction and transport.
Five years down the track and he was the youngest mayor of Shanghai in 50 years.
The past decade have been a series of intense highs and lows for the city.
In Han’s time at the top, Shanghai has hosted Expo 2010; become the world’s busiest container port in terms of cargo throughput; secured a place on the Formula One circuit and become home to the mainland’s first Disneyland. It has also embarked on an ambitious drive to become a global financial and shipping centre, launched the high-profile free-trade zone and announced its plans to be an international innovation hub.
But the city was also rocked in 2010 by a fatal blaze in downtown Jingan district that killed 58 people, and a catastrophic crush on the Bund on New Year’s Eve in 2014 when 36 people died.
Either incident might have been enough to sink many political careers but Han kept his head above water, offering a swift public apology in the first instance and avoiding blame in the second.
Between such extremes, Han has relentlessly pursued stability and the party line.
Shanghai was among the first provincial-level regions to heed the Chinese leadership’s calls to expand the economy through technological innovation. It worked hard to attract global tech giants to set up bases in the city to help it move up the value chain. The municipal government also eased visa restrictions and unlocked financing to give start-ups a leg up in the quest for expertise.
As Shanghai’s party boss, Han has also kept a tight grip on local government-controlled media.
The city’s propaganda machine constantly receives verbal or written orders not to report negative stories about other provincial-level regions or to speculate on personnel changes involving senior officials, according to a top editor with a local state-owned newspaper.
“All in all, Han prevents all local authorities from doing anything that can potentially displease top officials in Beijing,” a Shanghai government official said. “Nor is he willing to do anything that may upset his peers.”
Over the years, Han has cultivated an in-depth knowledge of Shanghai’s local bureaucracy and business realm that has helped him effectively lead the city’s economic rise. But his lack of experience elsewhere could be a drawback, stopping him from going further up the political ladder.
Observers said his elevation to the Politburo Standing Committee was less a matter of personal strength and more the result of decades-old convention – late leader Deng Xiaoping thought top-ranked Shanghai officials had the experience needed to help modernise the rest of the country.
“He does not have ambitions of further climbing the political ladder, and focuses on safety,” an analyst at a think tank said.
“Yet his high skills to oversee the metropolis’ daily running and vision in urban development earned him the reputation of a capable technocrat.”