Wang Qishan: The Chairman’s Right Hand Man 王岐山:习近平的左右手 by Scott McKnight

CORN December 2014 Edition.

Tamer of tigers, catcher of flies, fighter of fires, Wang Qishan has proven to be Chairman Xi Jinping’s most able and trusted ally—and may have become the second most powerful man in China as a result.

Wang Qishan and Xi Jinping

Wang Qishan and Xi Jinping

A Trouble-Shooter’s CV “Greatest Hits”

Post (and years of tenure) Problem sent to solve
Governor of the China Construction Bank (1994-97) Deal with thousands of “ghost” loans to insolvent state-owned enterprises
Vice-governor of Guangdong province (1998-2000) Deal with the bankruptcy of a major financial institution after the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis
State Commission for Restructuring the Economy (2000-02) Work with Premier Zhu Rongji to restructure state-owned enterprises and prepare China for its entry into the WTO
Party secretary of Hainan province (2002-03) Deal with the province’s decade-long real estate bubble
Acting Mayor of Beijing (2003-04) Deal with the panic of the SARS epidemic, especially in spring 2003
Mayor of Beijing (2004-07) Prepare the city for the 2008 Olympic Games
Vice-Premier in charge of finance and commercial affairs (2008-13) Work with Premier Wen Jiabao to weather the impact of the 2008 global financial crisis; also, appointed as President Hu Jintao’s special representative for the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue
Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (2012-present) Spearhead Chairman Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign

 

Resuscitate the slowing Chinese economy, rein in rampant corruption, put Bo Xilai scandal and its key conspirators to rest—these were the daunting challenges facing Xi Jinping when he assumed the highest positions in the Chinese party-state in November 2012.[i] And while each challenge stood in the way of Xi’s determined drive to consolidate power, he could solve none on his own.

So, needing the help of competent and reliable allies, Xi naturally turned to Wang Qishan (王岐山), a friend for over forty years[ii] and a man with a reputation as a go-to-guy in times of crisis. And Wang hasn’t disappointed him. Whether taming “tigers” like Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang, breaking through vested interests or breathing life into the slowing Chinese economy, Wang has proved himself indispensable to the new Chairman. This article discusses how Wang Qishan has stepped up to become Chairman Xi’s most important ally—and how Wang has arguably become the second most important leader in China as a result.

Catcher of Flies: Wang Qishan’s Role in Xi’s War on Corruption

If it wasn’t already obvious that the most challenging and thankless portfolio in Chinese Communist Party (CCP) politics was that of anti-corruption czar, then Xi Jinping confirmed it during the first press conference of his administration when he claimed that official corruption was destroying the CCP and its legitimacy. From this emerged his now well-known promise to take down “flies” (low-level corrupt cadres) as well as “tigers” (high-level corrupt cadres). With those words, the new Chairman effectively made heading the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) (中纪委) the most difficult—and the most important—assignment for his administration.

But who among the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), China’s highest decision-making body, was skilled and trustworthy enough to do the job?[iii] No member was personally closer to Chairman Xi or had a more stellar track record of trouble-shooting than Wang Qishan. And it couldn’t come at a more necessary moment: in the final years of the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao administration, CCDI had been tarnished with one embarrassing scandal after another.

So, armed with a mandate to battle corruption head-on—to net the “flies” and also to trap the “tigers”—it didn’t take long for Wang to launch a surprisingly heavy-duty anti-corruption campaign. “Flies” were ordered to give back pricy gifts and free club-membership cards, barred from spending public money on booze, cigarettes, and gourmanding banquets—all seen as legitimate perks of cadre work since the Mao era.

But more than limiting Party expense accounts, axes needed to fall too. In 2013 alone, CCDI and the Ministry of Supervision (监察部) handled a staggering 172,000 corruption cases and investigated 182,000 officials—the highest annual number of cases in 30 years.[iv] Nabbing “flies”, traditionally more for public consumption under previous hemophiliac anti-corruption bosses, soon became an enterprise of industrial efficiency under Wang. While processing this kind of volume would choke other legal systems to submission, the CCP has skirted many of these legal bottlenecks by using its own inner-Party mechanisms. Not afraid to resort to Hammurabian techniques, the campaign has drawn a fair degree of criticism and controversy, and even caused alarming spike in cadre suicide rates, taking Wang’s wish to “scare [corrupt] cadres to death” to a morbid, literal level.

However, that the campaign risks undermining China’s long march to rule of law while descending into power abuse have seemed like prices worth paying for Chairman Xi. On this point, Wang has proven to be a good company man, insisting that nothing short of what he calls a “shock and awe” anti-corruption campaign is needed to deter cadres from turning to the dark side.[v]

Yet for as skilled as Wang has shown himself to be in netting flies, it has been his ability to take down tigers that has made him politically invaluable to Chairman Xi.

Tamer of Tigers: Wang Qishan helps take down Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang

Xi Jinping came to power amid the most dramatic—and potentially destructive—high-level power struggle in reform-era China. Worse yet was the built-in legitimacy crisis that came with it, which, for Cheng Li of the Brookings Institute, was widely seen as a “no-win” situation for the CCP. The Bo Xilai scandal seemed to confirm long-held suspicions among the public that CCP cadres did not live up to the puritan ideals of the Party; much worse than that actually, Party cadres lived like Mafiosi or rock stars, with no shortage of sex, drugs, money-laundering, and murder. For Chairman Xi then, the war on corruption served multiple purposes: take on vested interests opposing reform, take down powerful rivals, and restore public confidence in the Party.

Needing to silence a dangerous rival and breathe life into the CCP’s legitimacy as rightful rulers of China, Xi appointed Wang Qishan as the point man for Bo’s trial. While the Bo scandal seemed instead to put the CCP on trial, Wang ensured that it was the wanton corruption of Bo & Co. that was the focus of the legal battle—and not the laundry list of Bo’s other unlawful behavior.

Wang was keenly aware of the skepticism that a closed monkey trial with a prepackaged verdict would provoke in the public. In a surprising and deft political move, it was apparently Wang who permitted the use of social media during the trial’s proceedings, and so preempting the inevitable public backlash over the lack of transparency.

But if tailoring the trial’s focus and micro-blogging were wise political plays, they would all be underdone by a verdict deemed inappropriate by the jury of public opinion. Finding that just right judgment—neither too harsh nor too soft—was apparently another of Wang’s feats. Ultimately, Bo’s verdict of life imprisonment was widely seen as just for the crime.

More interesting was the second, murkier part of the Bo saga: Bo’s key allies who were still at large. And none of these was more important—or ruthless—than Zhou Yongkang (周永康), another heavyweight politician and former Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) member. As I wrote earlier, the takedown of Bo, which Zhou had unwittingly opposed, essentially made Zhou next on the chopping block. Here again, Wang Qishan played a key role in bringing down the former ‘oil man’ and domestic spy chief, but this time using his position as head of the CCDI, the anti-corruption watchdog. Deftly, Wang rolled up the anti-Bo power purge into the ferocious anti-corruption campaign mentioned above.

That Zhou and Bo were both important protégés of former CCP chairman and Oz-like octogenarian Jiang Zemin, just adds another layer to this onion. Why have Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan, “princelings”[vi] themselves,[vii] teamed up to take down two of Jiang’s supporters in a rare case of inter-“princeling” warfare?

Most obviously, Bo and Zhou were perceived as dangerous political rivals—for both Xi and Wang. But more than that, by taking down what appeared like untouchable leaders, Xi and Wang, both with a heightened sense of the public pulse, have signaled that the anti-corruption campaign was not about factional politics—or not only about factional politics anyway.

Both the political and public relations gambit have paid dividends for the Chairman; the Bo Xilai trial and takedown of Zhou Yongkang, over a year in the making, have been widely applauded by the Chinese public. Facing another major challenge to his rule, Wang Qishan once again showed his value to Chairman Xi, performing the tricky tasks of taming tigers and restoring public confidence in the Party.

Fighter of Fires: Wang’s Role in Economic Recovery & Reforms

Timothy Geithner, the United States former Secretary of Treasury, presented Wang with an authentic New York City Fire Department hat during Wang’s visit to US in 2011.

Timothy Geithner, the United States former Secretary of Treasury, presented Wang with an authentic New York City Fire Department hat during Wang’s visit to US in 2011.

Winning political battles in the trenches of CCP power politics is actually only Wang Qishan’s subfield. In fact, it is on questions of finance and economic reform that have earned Wang his reputation of a skilled problem-solver—and actually helped catapult him to national power.[viii] And that is worth mentioning, considering that Xi Jinping assumed power at a time when China’s economy had begun to slowdown, cuing doomsday China watchers to point to the CCP’s imminent demise.

Not long after taking power, state-owned media, schools, and work units (单位) began parroting the new Chairman’s much vaunted, if not shamefully derivative “Chinese dream” (中国梦). For Xi, the “dream” featured China as a land of proud and happy middle-classers. And, for Xi, lifting millions out of poverty means more loans to private firms, more joint ventures with foreign, and more competition for China’s coddled state-owned enterprise.[ix] In short, it’s an economic plan with more market and more competition—and it’s an equation that Wang Qishan knows well.

Here, too, Wang was able to help restore confidence in the Chinese economy. Wang’s financial acumen and reputation as a willing and able financial reformer have proven indispensable to Chairman Xi, himself committed to leaving a lasting impact in the economic realm.

That Wang Qishan is cool under pressure and capable of dealing with crisis is clear from his CV (see above). Indeed, this uncanny ability to put out fires has earned him the nickname of “fire brigade chief” (救火队长).

The Chairman’s Go-to-guy

Wang Qishan has been both a cause and an effect of Xi Jinping’s power consolidation.

  • As a cause, Wang has proven irreplaceable on a series of all-important questions detailed above: as the head of the anti-corruption dragnet, as the point-man in the Bo Xilai trial and the taking down of Zhou Yongkang, and as the manager of the slowing Chinese economy.
  • As an effect, the successful handling of these challenges has strengthened CCP rule—and Xi Jinping’s hold over the Chinese party-state—which in turn has made Wang Qishan the most important ally in Xi’s power consolidation and reform program.

As friends for four decades and member of the so-called “Shaanxi Gang” (陕西帮), Wang’s appointment on the grounds of personal loyalty alone is understandable and expected. But that’s just part of the story. As a competent and fearless administrator committed to market reform and strengthening CCP rule, Wang has proven himself an invaluable ally in Chairman Xi’s power network. So, while Chairman Xi has made it clear that there is no question of who is number one in China today, Xi has helped make it clear who number two is as well.


Scott McNight

Having lived, worked and studied in China for six years, Scott is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto. He is especially interested in China’s elite politics, state-owned enterprises (especially oil companies), foreign policy-making and foreign relations, especially with resource-rich states. He has conducted multiple research visits in Africa where he examined China’s investments there. Scott also previously worked for the Office of the Governor General of Canada.

He can be reached at scottchrismcknight [at] gmail.com


 

[i] Xi Jinping holds the top offices of the CCP (General Secretary), state (PRC President), and military (Chairman of the Central Military Commission), which has earned him the informal title of “paramount leader”.

[ii] It not clear exactly when Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan first met. Certain Chinese sources believe that the two had become close friends 40 years ago while working as “sent-down youths” while in neighboring counties in Yan’an, Shaanxi (陕西延安) province. Wang spent ten years in Shaanxi—and not to be confused with Wang’s birthplace province, Shanxi (山西).

[iii] The specific tasks and responsibilities of PSC member portfolios are not explicitly stated but can be inferred from their posts, activities and nearly unending media attention.

[iv] World Journal, January 10, 2014, p. A2

[v] As for the rule of law, Wang himself believes that the Party must first deal with the “symptoms” (治标) of cadre corruption in order to cure the “disease” (治本) at some point in the future.

[vi] “Princelings” (太子) are a special group of Chinese cadres whose fathers (or fathers-in-law, as in the case of Wang Qishan, who married into Party royalty) who served as CCP senior leaders. “Princelings” today hold various powerful positions in the Chinese state, CCP, state-owned enterprises and especially military.

[vii] Because of Wang Qishan’s marriage to Yao Mingshan (姚明珊), daughter of former vice-premier Yao Yilin (姚依林), some have considered Wang a “princeling-by-marriage”. As a “sent-down youth” in Yan’an, Shaanxi province, the young Wang fell in love with Mingshan, who was also a sent-down youth as her father was purged from 1966-73. After being “rehabilitated”, Yao became vice premier and a Politburo Standing Committee member.

[viii] During the three years that Wang worked at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) (中社科), Wang’s intellectual interest shifted from university major of history to economics. Wang, along with three other young scholars, together wrote a comprehensive economic reform report in which they explored the controversial question of shortages in socialist economies. The report was passed on to senior economic policymakers in the top leadership, including economic heavyweights Zhao Ziyang, Chen Yun and father-in-law Yao Yilin, who all looked admirably at the report’s conclusions. From this point, Wang and the three other scholars gained the nicknamed “the Four Gentlemen of the Reform Proposal” (改革四君子). It was a promising start to Wang’s foray into economic affairs. See Wu Rujia (吴如加) and Lin Zijing (林子敬), “Changing Roles of Wang Qishan” (王岐山脸谱), Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊), December 5, 2013.

[ix] According to Zhang Lei (张蕾), during their years as “sent-down youth” in rural Shaanxi, Xi and Wang apparently exchanged books on economics and social sciences. See “The man who paddles at the incoming tide” (弄潮儿), Southern People Weekly (南方人物周刊), August 26, 2013.


 

This commentary reflects only the author’s personal opinion.

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