BEIJING (Reuters) - One of China’s most senior financial officials is likely to lead the fight against corruption, a top priority in the world’s second-biggest economy, following his appointment to a key council at the end of the Communist Party’s 18th congress on Wednesday.
Known as “the chief firefighter”, Wang Qishan, 64, is currently the vice-premier in charge of economic affairs, under Premier Wen Jiabao.
Wang, an experienced trade negotiator and former banker, sorted out a debt crisis in southern Guangdong province where he was vice governor in the late 1990s. Later, he replaced the sacked Beijing mayor after a cover-up of the deadly SARS virus in 2003.
Wang is now a shoo-in for the elite standing committee, the highest level of decision-making in China, after being elected to the party’s Central Committee and its graft-battling Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
The move comes on the eve of the unveiling of China’s new top leadership team that will guide the world’s most populous nation in the coming five years as it deals with rising social unrest and global and domestic economic uncertainty.
“The bad news is that we are going to lose one of the most capable economic affairs managers in the country,” said Bo Zhiyue, a Chinese politics expert at the National University of Singapore.
“The good news is that the new Chinese leadership is really interested in doing something about corruption,” he added. “With the nickname ‘firefighter’, I think he would be one of the most capable leaders of the Politburo Standing Committee.”
A former head of China Construction Bank, Wang is an experienced negotiator who has led finance and trade negotiations as well as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue with the United States, and is a favourite of foreign investors.
While his new role will take him away from a financial portfolio, Wang can focus his efforts on battling graft, which outgoing president Hu Jintao said last week threatened the party’s rule and the state.
The run-up to the generational leadership transition at this congress has been overshadowed by the dramatic downfall of senior politician Bo Xilai, who has been expelled from the party and faces possible charges of corruption and abuse of power.
On Wednesday, the 2,270 carefully vetted party delegates cast their votes in Beijing’s cavernous Great Hall of the People for the new central committee of 205 full members and 171 alternate members with no voting rights.
The committee will in turn, on Thursday, appoint a Politburo of about two dozen members and a Politburo Standing Committee, the innermost ring of power with possibly seven members, reduced from the current nine.
Other people elected to the central committee were Vice President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Li Keqiang, the anointed successors of Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, respectively, though their ascent was never in doubt.
However, central bank chief Zhou Xiaochuan was not elected, indicating he will step down.
“The congress elected a new central committee of the party and replaced older leaders with younger ones,” Hu told the closing ceremony of the congress, a mix of model workers, CEOs, soldiers and ethnic minorities in traditional clothing.
The election was carefully scripted. Leadership changes have been thrashed out in advance through horse-trading between party elders and retiring leaders anxious to preserve political power and protect family interests, but must go through a choreographed election process at the congress.
Xi had long been expected to take over from Hu, first as party chief at this congress and then as president when parliament meets for its annual session in March, completing the party’s second orderly succession since it took power in 1949.
One lingering question that will also be answered on Thursday is whether Hu will hang on to his role as chairman of the Central Military Commission, the supreme decision-making body for China’s nuclear-armed 2.3 million-strong military.
Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, only relinquished the post two years after handing the reins of the party to Hu in 2002.
The final make-up of the standing committee will not be known for sure until the new leaders emerge at a brief ceremony in the Great Hall on Thursday.
Although the central committee chooses the Politburo and the standing committee, possibly with more candidates than seats for the first time, the outcomes have already been decided at this point by the party’s power-brokers, sources with ties to the leadership have told Reuters.
The membership of these elite bodies should foretell economic and political policy direction in the years ahead, how much influence Hu will retain and who, looking a decade ahead, could be China’s next leaders.
It could give an idea of China’s political and economic direction, especially if it ends up being dominated by conservatives instead of those with a reputation to push reform.
“We must be prepared for some really bad news,” said Wang Zhengxu, a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham’s School of Contemporary Chinese Studies in Britain.
“The conservative old guys may get all the really good seats and those we think of as colourful, capable guys get the poorer jobs.”
Advocates of reform are pressing Xi to cut back the privileges of state-owned firms, make it easier for rural migrants to settle in cities, fix a fiscal system that encourages local governments to live off land expropriations and, above all, tether the powers of a state that they say risks suffocating growth and fanning discontent.
After days of turgid speeches and rhetorical displays of party unity, the five-yearly congress also unanimously approved Hu’s “state of the nation” work report and approved a revision to the party charter further enshrining Hu’s theory of sustainable and equitable development.
Hu told delegates that “we should free up our minds (and) implement the policy of reform” before the closing ceremony ended with playing of Internationale, the traditional Communist anthem.
Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim, Michael Martina, Sally Huang, Lucy Hornby and Sabrina Mao; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan