Next week’s 19th National Congress in Beijing is Xi Jinping’s party. But the real focus of the conclave is likely to be Zhou Xiaochuan. More to the point, who will replace the globally respected People’s Bank of China governor.

Markets are right to be wary. Zhou, who turns 70 in January, is a tough act to follow.

Over the past 15 years, he’s been Beijing’s most consistent and forceful reformer, its economic face across three presidencies and the longest-serving governor among the top 20 economies.

During that time, he scrapped China’s dollar peg, modernized monetary-policy tools, ended caps on deposit rates and engineered the yuan’s elevation toward reserve-currency status.

China’s success navigating around 2008’s Lehman Brothers shock and the 2013 Fed “taper tantrum” and containing Shanghai’s 2015 stock crash all bear Zhou’s fingerprints.

China’s success navigating around 2008’s Lehman Brothers shock and the 2013 Fed “taper tantrum” and containing Shanghai’s 2015 stock crash all bear Zhou’s fingerprints.

His ability to balance China’s dueling asset bubbles with upgrading its financial foundations bestowed a guru-like glow upon Zhou. That gave him a pivotal voice in Communist Party power circles, but also an unduly large role in steering Asia’s biggest economy.

Zhou learned that trick from his mentor, Zhu Rongji. While President Xi cloaks himself in a Joseph Schumpeter-like mystique, his nearly five years at the helm saw more stimulus than epochal changes.

Strongman image aside, Xi has been surprisingly timid about getting the state out of the economy or to wean China off smokestack industries.

Zhu, by contrast, was the real creative-destruction deal when he served as premier from 1998 to 2003. He eliminated some 40 million state-sector jobs, increased accountability and transparency at the four-biggest banks and shepherded China into the World Trade Organization.

The Xi years have been far less audacious. Though economic retooling is normally the premier’s portfolio, Xi commandeered that role from Li Keqiang.

Behind the scenes, Zhou worked to keep Beijing on the path toward modernization. Last year, for example, Zhou prodded Beijing to push for membership in the IMF’s top-five currency club.

For Zhou, adding the yuan into the “special-drawing rights” program was both about global clout and parking a Trojan horse inside Beijing’s walls –- just as Zhu did with WTO membership in 2001.

For Zhou, adding the yuan into the “special-drawing rights” program was both about global clout and parking a Trojan horse inside Beijing’s walls –- just as Zhu did with WTO membership in 2001.

If China fails to meet IMF metrics on loosening the capital account, upping transparency, curbing shadow banking and providing details on gold reserves, Beijing would lose face in markets.

Credit rating agencies might downgrade Beijing, as Standard & Poor’s did last month and Moody’s did in May. Benchmark index tabulators at MSCI and elsewhere may be less inclined to broaden China’s role in securities markets.

Zhou’s legacy has its blemishes. Just recently, the PBOC tightened foreign-exchange controls to slow capital outflows, the opposite of what Zhou would prefer to be doing.

Read: IMF’s China debt warnings are eerily familiar

Beijing has taken some pressure off the shadow-banking industry in the spirit of boosting stimulus. Regulators have been more interested in propping up stock prices than improving corporate governance.

But Zhou will be sorely missed. When investors wonder how, oh how, China’s manages to grow around 7% year after year without stumbling on its imbalances and debt, it’s his handiwork at which they’re marveling.

Really, the last time markets saw this level of policymaker drama was in 2006, when Alan Greenspan stepped down from the Fed.

Who might replace Zhou? Speculation often centers on Jiang Chaoliang, party secretary in Hubei Province. Political heavyweight Guo Shuqing, chairman of the Banking Regulatory Commission, gets mentioned, as does Yi Gang, one of Zhou’s deputies.

The worry is that Zhou’s replacement will be chosen more for political connections – closeness to Xi, that is – than smarts and vision.

The worry is that Zhou’s replacement will be chosen more for political connections – closeness to Xi, that is – than smarts and vision.

If there’s anything China’s unbalanced and frothy economy doesn’t need it’s a monetary yes-man.

That would mean even bigger bubbles and an ever-larger blowup when China hits the wall all industrializing nations do.

It’s comforting that Zhou, just as mentor Zhu did, has an eye on continuity. Zhou is working to put disciples in key positions.

Since 2015, he’s guided Zhang Tao into a top IMF job; Li Bo into the director generalship of the PBOC’s monetary policy department; Zhang Xin and Lu Lei to senior positions at the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, which manages Beijing’s $3 trillion of currency reserves; and Xuan Changneng to China’s Securities Regulatory Commission.

In top-down China, though, the loss of Zhou’s expertise is a huge risk factor at a dicey moment. Maybe we’ll get lucky and Beijing will rethink its retirement-age guidelines.

(William Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist, former columnist for Barron’s and Bloomberg and author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.” Twitter: @williampesek)