Wang Qishan has been described as cold, calculating and combative by his enemies. Just the sort of skill set his small, select circle of political allies are counting on, including his old comrade, the Chinese President Xi Jinping.
At 69, Wang was forced to step down from the all-powerful seven-man Politburo Standing Committee in October because of his age during a reshuffle at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing.
For the past five years, he had been feared and loathed as the anti-corruption tzar in President Xi’s centerpiece “clean up” campaign before he “retired”. But now, he is back after being elected to the National People’s Congress last month.
As a legislator, he will be in a position to assume a new, high-profile role when the NPC, the defacto rubber-stamp parliament, meets next month. Already, the post of vice-president has been mentioned in the corridors of power for Xi’s favorite political tough guy, who has a simple mantra.
“There is no such thing as separation between the party and government,” he told a public meeting last year.
Still, to characterize Wang as a mere enforcer would do him an injustice as behind the cold exterior is a charming and insightful politician from the “school of hard knocks.”
Born in the port city of Qingdao in Shandong province in 1948, he was sent to the countryside as a teenager to work as a manual laborer on a commune in the revolutionary heartland of Yan’an during Chairman Mao Zedong’s reign.
In 1973, he became a “peasant-soldier-student” at Northwest University in Xi’an, where he studied history before working as a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, sifting through the archives of the country’s imperial past.
Nearly a decade later, he helped piece together “rural policy” as a member of the Central Secretariat and as the chief executive of the Agricultural Investment Trust of China in 1988.
A political career was forged as he moved seamlessly between Party doctrine and the financial world. In 1994, he took over as the Governor of the China Construction Bank for three years and was the driving force in launching the China International Capital Corporation, the country’s first investment bank.
By now, he was quickly developing a reputation as a “financial specialist” and a “safe pair of hands” in Premier Zhu Rongji’s cabinet. After becoming the Mayor of Beijing in 2003, his star was on the ascendency.
Four years later, he was elected to the Politburo and named a Vice-Premier of the State Council in charge of finance and commerce. Firmly on the fast track, he was appointed by the then President Hu Jintao in 2009 as his special representative to chair the Economic Track of the United States-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
He was also named as one of the “most influential people in the world” in Time magazine’s annual list of movers and shakers.
But, perhaps his biggest challenge came at the 18th Party Congress in the Great Hall of the People in 2012 when he was named as the head of the anti-corruption body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
To many, it was seen as a poison chalice after his new boss President Xi was made General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. It was certainly unexpected as a senior role pushing through economic reforms looked a more natural fit.
“You can go look at media reports before the 18th [Party] Congress, and [who would have predicted] that Wang Qishan was going to become secretary of the CCDI? he was reported to have said at the time. “That’s how things work. You do what the party tells you to do.”
In a way, there was a logic behind the appointment. At the height of the country’s biggest bankruptcy case, involving the Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corp in 1999, he picked through the wreckage and restructured the entire state-owned banking sector.
With debts of US$5 billion, it was a colossal job and earned him the title of jiuhuo duizhang or “fire brigade chief.”
Naturally, these qualities have made Wang indispensable to President Xi, who might see him as the ideal man to shore up rapidly deteriorating trade relations with the US.
“He has an international Rolodex and stays in touch with people,” a friend told the Financial Times. “He says it’s a shame that most of his colleagues don’t do the same.”
But few have his forthright demeanor. In his 2015 memoir, Dealing with China, Hank Paulson, the former US Treasury Secretary and Goldman Sachs CEO, recalled a bruising encounter with Wang at the height of the global financial crisis in 2010.
“You were my teacher but look at your system, Hank, we aren’t sure we should be learning from you anymore,” Paulson recounted.
Predictably, there are concerns that this blunt approach might prove counterproductive when dealing with President Donald Trump’s administration in Washington. Putting out the flames, not fanning them, would be the “fire brigade chief’s” priority. There are also other problems.
When he ran the Party’s anti-graft campaign to purge the ranks of corrupt officials, many of whom also happened to be members of opposing factions, he became a hate figure.
Even now, he is respected but not liked.
“This could be a figurehead job with no real power or a very important role,” Hu Ping, the editor of the Chinese-language monthly Beijing Spring in New York, said. “[But because of Xi’s backing] Wang could become the most powerful [vice-president] in Chinese Communist Party history.”
Indeed, his return could finally consign the age issue into the trash bin of history. Last October, an official publicly called it “pure folklore,” while a Party journal reported President Xi as saying that appointing “officials cannot be simply based on age.”
Significantly, the legislation that pushed Wang out of office was put in place by former President Jiang Zemin in 2002. It is known as qi shang, ba xia, or “seven up, eight down”, which means Party members should retire at 68.
Bringing Wang back also opens up the intriguing possibility that President Xi might be tempted to stay on for a third term after 2022 when the 20th Party Congress convenes. By then, he will be 69 and due to step down after serving two terms in office.
“Wang’s political resurgence could help [President] Xi serve another term,” Xie Xuanjun, a China scholar based in New York, told Radio Free Asia.
With his ‘enforcer’ back in the picture, anything is possible.