Xi Jinping ally takes up top job in Shanghai

Li Qiang, 58, comes from the president’s power base of Zhejiang and is described as a supporter of economic reforms

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 October, 2017, 10:51am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2017, 11:18am

Beijing has named Li Qiang, a former top aide to President Xi Jinping, as the top boss of Shanghai – an appointment that will be key to realising its ambitions for the city.

Li, 58, formerly the party secretary of Jiangsu province, replaced Han Zheng, 63, following Han’s elevation to the Communist Party’s top seven-member decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, Xinhua reported on Sunday.

It comes after Shanghai revealed its plan to develop a free-trade port that is fully open to global business, much like Hong Kong’s.

According to Li’s biography, he enrolled in Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s executive master of business administration programme in 2003 and graduated two years later.

Li is a rising star from the so-called New Zhijiang Army – a clutch of officials from the president’s Zhejiang province power base appointed to posts in key departments of the party, the government and the army.

Some of them – including Beijing party secretary Cai Qi, Chongqing party chief Chen Miner and Li – have taken seats on the 25-member Politburo.

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Lou Qinjian, the former party secretary of Shaanxi, would succeed Li as the Jiangsu party boss, while Hu Heping, the Shaanxi governor who holds a doctorate from the University of Tokyo, was named as the party secretary of Shaanxi, Xinhua reported on Sunday.

Zhejiang entrepreneurs have described Li as a supporter of economic reforms.

Li, a low-profile politician from Shanghai’s neighbouring province of Zhejiang, also became a new member of the Politburo last week, paving the way for his elevation after a 16-month stint as party chief of Jiangsu province.

“It will be easier for Li to communicate with the central leadership given his experience as President Xi Jinping’s assistant. And his connections in Zhejiang and Jiangsu will help the central government with its plan to better coordinate economic development in the Yangtze River Delta,” said Chen Daoyin, a political commentator based in Shanghai. “Shanghai will be in a better position to spearhead further liberalisations with Li taking the top position in the city.”

Over the past three decades, nearly all Shanghai party secretaries – except for Chen Liangyu, who fell from grace amid a pension fund scandal – have eventually taken a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee.

Li was the secretary general to the party committee of Zhejiang for three years when Xi was the party chief of the province between 2003 and 2007.

In June last year, Li was promoted from the job of Zhejiang governor to party chief of Jiangsu, the second-largest mainland province in terms of its economic size.

Will China’s free-trade port plan pose a threat to Hong Kong?

Although Shanghai’s free-trade zone has been in place for four years, the city’s transformation into an international finance and information hub has yet to happen.

Foreign and local companies have vented their frustration over the much-hyped zone, saying it lacks the concrete policies needed to facilitate cross-border commercial transactions and capital flows.

Han, a protégé of former president Jiang Zemin, said during the party congress last week that a free-trade port was in the works but did not give further details.

The campaign to develop the affluent Yangtze River Delta – which has a population of 150 million – is an important part of the Chinese leadership’s economic blueprint.

But Shanghai still needs approval from the central government if it is to roll out the reforms needed to compete with Hong Kong as an international financial hub, including full convertibility of the yuan and a relaxation of visa rules for foreign businesspeople.