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The pragmatic patriot at Xi Jinping's side

March 23, 2018

The National People's Congress has officially made Wang Qishan, Xi Jinping's crisis manager, the second most powerful man in China. DW's Frank Sieren says Xi's future depends on Wang's success as vice president.

Wang Qishan and Xi Jinping
Image: Reuters/J. Lee

The US media has nicknamed him "Mr Fix-It," half out of respect, half out of irony. Apart from the president himself, no one featured more in the headlines at this year's Communist Party-controlled National People's Congress than Xi Jinping's 69-year-old crisis manager, Wang Qishan, even though according to the party statues, high-ranking officials are supposed to step down at the age of 68.

Read more: China's Xi Jinping — the man who decides the fate of billions

But just as the Congress removed a limit on a president's terms in office that had existed for 30 years, the rule on having to retire does not apply to Wang. In recent months, he has participated in meetings of the Politburo Standing Committee, China's highest decision-making body, despite not having an official title. Last Saturday, when the People's Congress approved Xi's re-election, Wang was nominated vice president to great applause. What had long been said about him in secret became official: He is the second-most important politician in China.

Xi needs his right-hand man

The vice president has traditionally taken on a more ceremonial role in the country. This was certainly the case for Wang's predecessor Li Yuanchao, who left hardly any traces after five years in office, which was probably the right strategy considering he was seen to be a protege of Xi's predecessor. Wang will be different.

Frank Sieren
DW's Frank SierenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Tirl

His nomination sends the signal that Xi cannot make do without his right hand; their careers are tied together. They have known each other since the Cultural Revolution, when both of them — like so many others — were forced to work on a rural commune. Wang has been a loyal supporter of Xi's, helping him to push through his anti-graft campaign over the past five years.

Wang predicted that there would be red faces and perspiration among the "tigers and swat flies," both the powerful and the minor officials, when he became head of China's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection in 2012. He more than kept his promise: Over 1.3 million people were prosecuted, including Politburo members, deputy commanders, governors and businessmen, many of whom included some of Xi's biggest competitors.

Exceptional business talent

Born in 1948 and hailing from the northern province of Shanxi, Wang started out as a historian conducting research into the fall of the last Chinese dynasty and the confusing years of the Republic of China from 1912 to 1949. So he knew about political crises in theory at least. His political career began in the early 1980s as a consultant for agriculture at party headquarters in Beijing. He eventually turned up in the finance sector and displayed an exceptional talent.

Read more: Who is China's new central bank chief?

He was vice governor of the central bank for some time and helped push through the reforms that enabled China's economic opening. Prime Minister Zhu Rongji nominated him to head the China Construction Bank in 1994. He then straightened up two provinces and one city. He became vice governor of the booming southern province of Guangdong, where officials thought that they did not have to adhere to Beijing's rule since they were so far away. The same was true of the sub-tropical island of Hainan, which had indebted itself considerably. Wang became party secretary there. Then he went to Beijing where he became mayor of a city where officials thought they had a lot of leeway because they were so close to the center of power.

Wang Qishan
Wang has led the anti-graft push in ChinaImage: Imago/Kyodo News

Wherever Wang went, he was the Communist Party's firefighter. The fact that China survived the economic crisis of 1997/98 and 2008/09, by contrast to other tiger states, can also be attributed to him. He straightened up the southern provinces which had more or less secretly borrowed money from foreign banks. He thus managed to prevent China from having to devalue its own currency and helped stop Asia from embarking on an even worse downward spiral. In 2003, during the SARS epidemic, when he was mayor of Beijing, he was able to quell the panic by having TV crews film him visiting markets and hospitals in 2003. During the banking crisis of 2008, he helped to boost the global economy with a stimulus package. At the time, he is said to have told former Goldman Sachs head Henry Paulson, then the US treasury secretary, with whom he had worked closely for many years:  "You were my teacher but look at your system, we aren't sure we should be learning from you any more."

Diplomatic skills

At the international level, Wang wants to have his cake and eat it. Steve Bannon, US President Donald Trump's former political adviser and no great fan of China, has said that Wang's knowledge of the US is "stunning." As vice president he might be able to direct Sino-US relations into calmer waters, like a kind of horse whisperer for Washington.

Read more: Did Donald Trump really just launch a trade war with China?

He might be able to prove his skills in the coming weeks. Trump has proposed tariffs worth $60 billion (€49 billion) on Chinese products to counter intellectual property theft. The White House wants China to decrease its trade surplus with the US by $100 billion. The outcome remains to be seen. Beijing could react with punitive tariffs.

Wang knows that Trump has to play this game with China to not lose his voters. He also knows that the tariffs on aluminum and steel will not hit China as much as US allies like Brazil and Japan. China's "most skilled negotiator" as he was once described by the late leader of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, will probably try to react pragmatically to the unpredictable US president — making efforts to find a a diplomatic compromise that allows Trump to save face but does not isolate him further internationally. This would be one problem less for Xi, who could then concentrate on reforms in China.

DW's Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.

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