China leadership

Cabinet musical chairs: who will take on the top jobs in China’s government?

With the new Communist Party leadership in place, the question now is which senior cadres will take the major cabinet spots over the next few months

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 October, 2017, 8:29pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 October, 2017, 11:18am

China’s cabinet is set for an overhaul in the next few months as fresh faces in the Communist Party’s leadership take on new jobs in government.

Of the new Politburo Standing Committee members named on Wednesday, liberal-minded Vice-Premier Wang Yang is likely to move on to head a top advisory body and Shanghai party boss Han Zheng could go on to become the vice-premier in charge of finance and economy.

Apart from President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang was the only person to retain his seat on the party’s most powerful body.

While Li will stay on as premier and head of government, all the four vice-premier positions will change hands.

If precedent is followed, Wang, now fourth in the party hierarchy, will head the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, leaving his vice-premier post vacant. The three other vice-premiers – Zhang Gaoli, Liu Yandong and Ma Kai – will retire.

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Although the government appointments will not be finalised until early next year, Han, who is seventh on the Standing Committee, is in line to be executive vice-premier.

While Wang established a strong track record of managing complex economic issues as party chief of Chongqing and Guangdong, Han is widely regarded as a tenacious political survivor who loyally follows Xi’s direction.

As Shanghai’s party boss, Han oversaw the city’s shift from an industry-focused, growth-obsessed model to a cleaner, service-based one but he also failed to develop Shanghai’s free-trade zone into a centre on a par with Hong Kong.

Aidan Yao, senior emerging Asia economist at AXA Investment Managers, said the appointment of Han and Wang suggested Xi would take on a stronger role in the economy.

“It looks like a signal that Xi will hold more power over economic reform and financial policies in his own hands,” Yao said. “If Han takes the executive vice-premier role he will be more of an empty suit, like his predecessor Zhang Gaoli.

“Xi will still take full control, and surround himself with capable advisers who will provide academic, theoretical and practical advice.”

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Other contenders for top jobs in the cabinet, known as the State Council, include United Front Work Department chief Sun Chunlan, who could replace Vice-Premier Liu Yandong to take charge of education, science, culture and health.

Guangdong party boss Hu Chunhua is also in the running for one of the vice-premier positions though his chances could be undercut because he had been groomed as potential successor to Li by Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao.

State Councillor Yang Jiechi is also an outside candidate to fill one of the vice-premier spots now that he is on the Politburo. If the veteran diplomat did get the job it would underscore the importance of diplomacy in China’s drive to expand its influence in the international arena.

While Li and Han are likely to form the core team carrying out Xi’s economic policies, Liu He, Xi’s top economic adviser, is expected to become the party’s chief theorist, now that he has risen to the Politburo.

ING economist Iris Pang said Liu He’s ascension meant the work of economic reform would fall to him rather than Li. “Li will be more like an executor of Liu’s reform plan,” Pang said.

Capital Economics China economist Julian Evans-Pritchard said it was reassuring to see Wang Yang make it to the Politburo Standing Committee.

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“Likewise, it’s encouraging that Liu He, a key proponent of market reforms, was promoted to the Politburo,” Evans-Pritchard said. “However, it remains to be seen to what degree they can help nudge policy in the direction that is desperately needed – towards less state interference in the economy.”

After introducing the leadership line-up, Xi vowed to stick to reforms and open up wider to the outside world, saying reform and opening up was a “crucial step” to realise the “Chinese dream” of a stronger country.

In his work report to the party’s national congress last week, Xi said China would pursue “sustainable and healthy” economic development to benefit the people, let the market play a dominant role in the economy, ensure the government functioned better, and strive to make state-owned enterprises bigger and stronger.