First tycoon in CCP elite ranks?
Construction equipment group boss tipped to join Central Committee
BEIJING – China's richest man is set to make history as the first capitalist inducted into the Communist Party's top ruling body.
Sany Heavy Industry founder Liang Wengen, 55, is tipped to join the roughly 350-member Central Committee, which appoints China's top leaders and discusses policies.
The party is seeking to bring more private enterprises into its fold by giving big guns like Mr Liang a bigger political role.
And the founder of China's largest construction equipment group is the perfect poster boy.
He is known for gushing statements in the local press such as: "Private enterprises love the Communist Party the most. Why? Because the party provides the best growth opportunities and conditions for them."
And he reportedly welcomes new staff at his Changsha-based company, which plays patriotic songs every morning before work starts, with the question: "Are you a party member?"
On top of this, he is cosy with the top leadership, having been selected as part of the delegation accompanying Vice-President Xi Jinping to the United States for a diplomatic visit in February.
He has even been conferred the title of "Architect of Socialism with Chinese Character" for his contributions to China's economic progress.
No wonder Mr Liang, worth US$6 billion (S$7.34 billion) according to Forbes, looks to be the only one – out of three candidates reportedly shortlisted last year – to make it to the Central Committee.
He is likely to be an alternate member of the caucus, a position which does not have any voting rights.
Mr Liang is also among 34 rich entrepreneurs selected to represent China's 70 million or so private enterprises as delegates at the 18th Party Congress which starts on Thursday.
This, according to Hong Kong-based China expert Willy Lam, is "an unprecedentedly large number of red capitalists".
In 2002, there were just seven non-state sector delegates.
"That so many private business people have been selected as congress delegates reflects the party leadership's open and accommodating attitude," the China Enterprise News, an official newspaper focusing on private businesses, wrote last month.
It marks a new chapter in the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) move to diversify from its proletarian roots.
More than a decade ago, it would have been unthinkable for the "vanguard of the Chinese working class" to grant party membership to private entrepreneurs. But since the introduction of former president Jiang Zemin's "Three Represents" theory to include entrepreneurs as part of the party, capitalists and other members of the elite have been welcomed.
At the 16th Congress in 2002, the party revised its charter to allow those from the so-called "New Social Class" to enrol.
Since then, those belonging to this social stratum – private enterprise owners, managers in foreign firms and the self-employed – have been increasingly co-opted.
More than 300,000 CCP grassroots committees have been set up in private firms, triple that of the fewer than 100,000 about a decade ago.
But whether this year's 34 big bosses can give voice to China's private businesses is in doubt.
"How many large companies like Sany are there in China?" asked Beijing Technology and Business University professor Li Shimin.
"Liang Wengen can speak only for the big businesses, not the small and medium-sized ones which make up the core of the private sector."
Neither can the 34 delegates lobby much for the private sectors' interests, note analysts.
After all, they make up just 1 per cent of the 2,270 delegates to the Congress.
So these appointments are more significant for their symbolism. Analysts say the CCP wants to send a message that it is representing the interests of a broader social spectrum.
"Since the 16th Party Congress, the CCP has accelerated its shift from a revolutionary party to a ruling political party. To hold power, there must be more complete representation," said Mr Han Deyun, president of the New Social Class Professionals Association in Chongqing.
Private enterprises are a particularly important group because they play a vital role in the economy, despite state giants' dominance from banking to oil.
Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are estimated to generate 90 per cent of new jobs and more than half of GDP. But most of the workers in private enterprises are not CCP members.
To align them more closely with the party, the CCP will likely step up efforts to bring more private sector chiefs into the leadership. More seats for businessmen in the Central Committee, whose members currently include over 20 state-owned enterprise bosses, can be expected in coming years.
"I think this trend will keep growing," said Mr Han.
This article first appeared in The Straits Times on Nov 6, 2012.