Premier Li Keqiang has the spotlight but Wang Qishan is the centre of attention

China’s former anti-graft tsar does not have a title but that did not stop the good and the great lining up to pay homage

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 March, 2018, 8:33pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 March, 2018, 11:38pm

The premier was on the podium but at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Monday all eyes were on China’s former anti-graft tsar.

As the imposing head of the party’s anticorruption watchdog, Wang Qishan cut a swathe through officialdom, and on Monday, as Premier Li Keqiang listed the government’s achievements of the last five years, Wang cut a commanding figure, with the Communist Party elite lining up to shake the hand of the man who would be vice-president.

The moment Li’s speech was over, outgoing Vice-Premier Liu Yandong was the first to leap to her feet, bypassing fellow Vice-Premier Ma Kai to beat a path to Wang, her colleague on the State Council under the previous administration.

What to watch for at China’s Two Sessions

Waiting in the wings to press the flesh was General Fan Changlong, the top professional officer with the People’s Liberation Army during President Xi Jinping’s first five-year term.

Speculation has been rife that Fan has been under a cloud since his retirement from the Politburo in late October.

As Wang breezed past on his way from the main hall, Fan snapped to attention and saluted before extending his hand and having a word in the ear of the president’s right-hand man.

Also hoping to shake Wang’s hand was Wang Shengjun, the country’s former top judge. He simply waited there and shook Wang’s hand before heading out the door.

Meanwhile a poker-faced Xi left the building after little interaction with the assembled delegates and deputies, taking just a couple of minutes out during Li’s speech to talk to outgoing National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang.

It should have been Li’s big day – the one time of the year when he has the nation’s attention to define the way ahead.

Key takeaways from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s opening speech for the National People’s Congress 2018

Indeed, all of the thousands of assembled delegates to the NPC and the top consultative body, stood up and clapped as the premier and the rest of the leaders trooped in along the red carpet for the ceremonial start to the annual sessions at 9am sharp.

But Wang, the man without a portfolio and who for now is technically no higher than any other of the 90 million members of the party, was clearly centre-stage.

Various sources have told the South China Morning Post that Wang is expected to be the next vice-president with the job of untangling the knots in China’s diplomatic and trade ties with the United States over the next five years.

China to be more open to foreign investment, speed up Beijing-led trade bloc and strengthen its military: Li Keqiang

Wang has a reputation as a troubleshooter and would wield huge political power in the vice-presidency, thanks to his close ties with Xi.

Should he get the new title, his term could be indefinite, with a proposal in motion to change the country’s constitution to remove term limits on the vice-presidency.

If Li’s speech showed anything, it was that the action was elsewhere – throughout the address neither Wang nor Xi took a moment to thumb through the copies of Li’s report in front of them.