From graft buster to China's V-P

Newly-elected Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan shaking hands with other officials after the fifth plenary session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing yesterday.
Newly-elected Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan shaking hands with other officials after the fifth plenary session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing yesterday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Former anti-graft czar Wang Qi-shan, 69, would, under normal circumstances, be headed for retirement after relinquishing all key positions at the 19th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) last October.

He did not even get into the CCP's 19th Central Committee, which consists of nearly 400 top party cadres.

But yesterday he was elected the country's Vice-President with an overwhelmingly high vote of 99.9 per cent. Only one out of the 2,970 lawmakers voted against him.

Some quickly labelled him as "the unofficial eighth" member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), China's top decision-making body.

Indeed, state TV had shown Mr Wang alongside the seven top-ranking leaders at the annual parliamentary meetings. And during the National People's Congress voting yesterday, he was seated beside sixth-ranked Zhao Leji, which essentially places him among the top leaders in the party hierarchy.

Analysts say Mr Wang, who is one of President Xi Jinping's closest allies, could take on an expanded role beyond the largely ceremonial nature of the vice-presidency.

Most agree that he could be tasked to play a key role in China's foreign affairs, making him significantly more powerful than his immediate predecessor Li Yuanchao.

Another possibility is for him to also head the National Supervisory Commission, a newly-created anti-graft agency with oversight of all government employees. Historian and political commentator Zhang Lifan said: "With his experience as the top graft-buster, he looks to be a more qualified person for the job."

Mr Wang had been the mastermind of a sweeping anti-corruption drive during his five-year tenure on the PSC from 2012 to 2017. The campaign netted hundreds of top officials, including former security chief Zhou Yongkang and a general.

In foreign affairs, analysts say Mr Wang could be tasked with averting or delaying a trade war with the United States, living up to the expectations of his reputation as the "captain of the firefighting squad", a nickname given to him for his crisis-management abilities.

Over the years, he has chalked up extensive experience as a trouble-shooter, which saw him deal with ailing state-owned banks during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, as well as handle the deadly Sars outbreak as Beijing mayor in 2003.

"If Wang is indeed given real powers, he could well be the most powerful vice-president since 1949," said Mr Zhang, referring to the year that the People's Republic of China was founded.

But Hong Kong-based analyst Willy Lam thinks Mr Wang's job scope could well be limited to foreign affairs, given his status as "an ordinary party member". The vice-presidency had always been given to senior party cadres who were at least a Politburo member, said Dr Lam, referring to the 25-member group one rung below the PSC.

Mr Xi and his predecessor Hu Jintao had been vice-presidents as they were being groomed to take over the top job subsequently. "They were given substantial powers and held positions on the PSC," said Dr Lam. While he noted that there had been a previous case of a non-CCP member being made vice-president in the 1990s, it was an exception.

"Mr Rong Yiren was a prominent businessman and his family was one of the early industrialists in China," said Dr Lam, adding that paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had given Mr Rong the position to show he appreciated the contributions of private entrepreneurs.

Dr Lam views Mr Wang's election as "another example" of Mr Xi's penchant for "bending the rules just to suit his preferences".

"Essentially, the extent of Wang Qishan's powers depends on the wishes of Xi Jinping," he added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 18, 2018, with the headline 'From graft buster to China's V-P'. Print Edition | Subscribe