China’s ‘firefighter-in-chief’ ascending


Wang Qishan, China's vice premier, attends a news conference at the Itamaraty Palace in Brasilia in this Feb. 13, 2012 file photo. Until six months ago, rumours swirled that Wang, a historian by training, might even take the place of Li Keqiang, the man anointed to replace Wen Jiabao as premier (UESLEI MARCELINO/REUTERS)
November 1, 2012

When China suffered the biggest bankruptcy of its modern era, foreign creditors who stood to lose $4 billion went to Wang Qishan, a Communist party official, to request a government bailout. Instead, they got a lesson in laissez-faire economics.

“The fundamental principle of a market economy is that the winners win and the losers lose,” he told them.

Wang’s hardline stance in 1999 after the collapse of Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corporation earned him a reputation as the rarest of Chinese officials: a straight talker with a good feel for media, a strong grasp of finance and a willingness to tackle thorny problems.

Those qualities have made Wang, 64, a shoo-in for promotion to the standing committee of the politburo, China’s top ruling body, when the Communist party unveils its new leadership line-up later this month.

Until six months ago, rumours swirled that Wang, a historian by training, might even take the place of Li Keqiang, the man anointed to replace Wen Jiabao as premier. Li is now seen as having a lock on the premiership, but Wang is still expected to emerge from the once-in-a-decade political transition with greatly enhanced powers.

The big unknown is whether these powers will be deployed in the economic arena, which he has focused on in recent years, or whether he will be given a broader political remit. Long seen as a pro-market reformer, Wang has given tantalizing hints that he might also push for political reforms with a series of comments in recent months about the importance of the rule of law.

For now, though, Wang is less known for his ideological leanings and more for his practical side, particularly his knack for cleaning up the messes made by others – hence his nickname, “chief of the fire brigade”

His first success in this regard was Guangdong in the late 1990s, when the freewheeling southern province had amassed huge debts. Wang was tapped to serve as vice governor. He negotiated with foreign creditors, keeping them onside even while forcing them to accept massive losses, and oversaw a consolidation of state assets that primed the province for a return to strong growth.

He confronted a more dangerous crisis with the 2003 Sars outbreak. The deadly virus had started to spread in Beijing and there was alarm that the city government was covering it up. The government sacked the mayor and replaced him with Wang.

Wang’s first order of business was to ensure accurate reporting of deaths and illnesses. “One is one and two is two. There’s no joking when you’re at war,” he exhorted local officials, speaking with characteristic bluntness.

Wang was elevated to one of China’s four vice-premier positions in 2008, and economic affairs was added to his portfolio. That made him one of the main architects of the government’s aggressive response to the global financial crisis, the stimulus package that kept Chinese growth humming along even as the rest of the world stumbled. Critics worry that China overdid the stimulus, leading to a pile-up of debt, but for the time being the economy remains in very good shape by international standards.

Married to the daughter of Yao Yilin, a senior party leader who voted to deploy the army against student protesters in 1989, Wang is considered a princeling – part of the Communist aristocracy – through this connection.

Chinese officials often hew closely to their anodyne, scripted remarks, but Wang has the confidence to stray. His fondness for cracking jokes is a big part of the reason that foreign interlocutors see him as more approachable than most in Beijing.

But his outgoing style might be a liability in Beijing. Although he has scored high approval ratings in internal polls of high-ranking officials, detractors say he is arrogant, even imperious. Some observers believe he might be sidelined as head of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, a toothless advisory body.

Another rumor – and one that would be much more to Wang’s liking – is that he might be named chairman of the National People’s Congress, the country’s parliament. That post technically ranks second in the Communist party hierarchy, but the parliament today is seen as little more than a rubber-stamp body.

“His talent is not just finance. He knows that the rule of law is also very important and he really can change the dynamic of the NPC, making it more important,” said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

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