Bhim B. Subba, Research Associate, Institute of Chinese Studies
On 17th March 2018 Wang Qishan got elected as the Vice-President of PRC succeeding Li Yuanchao. This is major political news. Wang, 69 who resigned from the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) at the 19th National Party Congress in October 2017 polled 2969 votes in the total of 2980 deputies and making a comeback indicates a boost to Xi Jinping’s power. At the sidelines of the lianghui- ‘two meetings,’ the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference – Xi emphasised that ‘human talent’ as one of the ‘Three Firsts’ in Xi Jinping Thought (人才是第一资源 rencai shi di yi ziyuan). He was almost certainly referring to bringing Wang Qishan as state vice-president, a ‘special talent’ which Xi did not want to waste and which can help him maintain his grip on party’s anti-corruption campaign and control over the 1.39 billion strong party-state.
Although Wang’s continuation as a PBSC member was much debated in the run-up to the party congress in fall 2017, his non-selection as a Central Committee member was not surprising. The party adhering to the ‘7-up-8-down’ principle (七上八下 qi shang ba xia) led to retirement of all PBSC members above 68 years. But with Xi’s continuing emphasis on party building ( 党建设dang jianshe) and anti-corruption campaign (反腐败运动 fan fubai yundong), a trusted lieutenant like Wang Qishan became indispensable for Xi Jinping. Hence, what better than Wang becoming a ‘deputy’ occupying the state vice-president’s post, a ceremonial position. With Wang, the position becomes a power centre to reckon with in the coming future. It is also speculated that Wang is attending closed-door PBSC deliberations even after his retirement. Thus, getting elected as a National People’s Congress (NPC) deputy from Hunan and a member of the 190-member NPC Presidium, Wang’s elevation as Xi’s deputy was on the cards. Wang’s seating position in the NPC presidium was a clear message of Wang’s comeback. Recently, he was also among the select few Chinese leaders who met with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un when the latter had a secret visit to Beijing.
From ‘Worker-Peasant-Soldier Student’ to Financial Honcho!
Wang Qishan, a Shanxi native, who joined the CPC in 1983 was also a ‘sent down youth’ during the Cultural Revolution. A student of modern history, he did everything but history when he joined the Rural Development Research Center after becoming a party member. He was one of the early beneficiaries of the reform period’s ‘successors training program’ where scores of young elites were recruited in the party-state echelons. Marrying Yao Mingshan (姚明珊),daughter of Yao Yilin, a conservative vice-premier under Zhao Ziyang, Wang’s political career rose steadily as pioneer of rural and agriculture reforms.
Later, Wang headed prominent national banks including as a governor of China Construction Bank (1994-97) and vice-governor of People’s Bank of China (1993-94). He was also instrumental in establishing China International Capital Corp (CICC) China’s first investment bank and served in Zhu Rongji’s cabinet. Even in the Hu-Wen era, Wang’s financial acumen was employed in negotiating the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue post-2008 financial crisis. Given that they are old US hands, President Xi can also delegate to the Wang Qishan and Liu He combine in engaging with the US especially after Trump’s call for trade war with China.
China’s Crisis Man to Anti-Corruption Czar
Wang’s new position as deputy to Xi also shows how these two individuals’ careers led them to working together in Beijing. Wang Qishan was appointed as the vice-mayor of Beijing post-2004 SARS outbreak, when he successfully helped the state machinery to check the deadly epidemic then referred to as ‘China’s Chernobyl.’ However, it was in mid-2000s when Xi was state vice president and Wang Qishan was Beijing City Mayor in-charge of preparations for Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics that their friendship flourished and they shared an amicable working relationship. As PBSC members in 2012, their partnership led to the party rectification through anti-corruption campaign. Since then, Wang has become Xi’s ‘fire brigade chief’ (救火队长 jiuhuo duizhang) or ‘samasya nivarak.’
With a trusted confidant like Wang, Xi has successfully sidelined many of his political detractors. Investigations against Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, Ling Jihua and Sun Zhengcai were more dealt within the ambit of anti-party activities than in the form of political persecution. From 2012-17, from the party-centre to local levels, and in state agencies, SOEs and in financial institutions, the anti-graft campaigns have been successful in snaring many ‘tigers’ and flies. In 2017, alone 160,000 officials were investigated for graft and party indiscipline.
The amendment of the PRC constitution to remove term limits for the President and Vice-President at the 13th National People’s Congress recently, reinforced both Xi and Wang as the No 1 and 2 in the power hierarchy. Wang’s comeback as Xi’s ‘trouble-shooter’ must be closely watched especially after Xi’s becoming a so-called people’s leader’ (人民领袖renmin lingxiu). One needs to ponder who the ‘crisis man’ represents — Xi’s Man Friday or the party-state’s? The larger question however, is of how Xi will address this ‘revolving door’ appointment of a once retired party colleague and the ramifications to Chinese elite politics in coming years.