It was carefully staged in the grandiose Great Hall of the People on the edge of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Bowing twice, Wang Qishan then walked over to close friend President Xi Jinping to shake his hand after being elected as vice-president at the National People’s Congress on Saturday.
Only one person voted against the feared former anti-corruption tzar, while Xi was re-elected president for a second term without a single dissenting voice at China’s de facto rubber-stamp parliament, which is packed by Communist Party activists.
Known as “the firefighter” for his crucial role in tackling issues such as graft and domestic financial scandals, Wang looks certain to be handed the high-profile assignment of averting a trade war with the United States after President Donald Trump rolled out stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.
“He is a really important political adviser,” Kerry Brown, the director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, told the AFP news agency. “Wang is a very capable politician, so it makes sense he would still be around, [but then] it also shows we’re in an unconventional time in Chinese politics.”
The 69-year-old troubleshooter has been a confidante of President Xi since “they were young” and helped set up China’s first investment bank with Morgan Stanley in the 1990s. He also has an extensive network of influential global contacts and forged enduring ties with major Wall Street figures such as Hank Paulson.
After stepping down last year because of his age, he has been brought back by President Xi, who has become the most powerful leader in China since Mao Zedong following the Communist Party’s decision to scrap the two-term presidential time limit earlier this month.
Significantly, Wang was at the frontline of Xi’s anti-corruption crusade, heading the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. During the past five years, up to 1.5 million officials, from low-level cadres to regional leaders and generals, have been purged in a nationwide crackdown.
Many were opponents of his “boss,” President Xi.
“Choosing Wang as vice-president will consolidate [Xi’s] power,” said Hua Po, an independent Chinese political commentator.
“Xi is already a very powerful man. The problem is that he has too few people who are loyal and competent for his use, so he has to retain Wang and give himself more time to cultivate more talented people,” Hua added.
Still, Wang’s brief to tackle economic issues with the US is looking more complex with each set of trade figures. In February, the surplus with the US stood at US$21 billion, official data from China’s General Administration of Customs showed, more than double the $10.4 billion recorded during the same period last year.
Then on Tuesday, reports emerged that President Trump’s administration was considering imposing tariffs on $60 billion worth of Chinese goods, which would target the tech and telecommunications sectors.
“The risk of a trade war in which Trump increases tariffs for a broader scope of products seems to be rising,” Xia Le, the chief Asia economist at Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria in Hong Kong, told Bloomberg.
This is a crucial period for President Xi, who has sidelined his critics and rivals and seen his “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” enshrined in the Communist Party of China’s constitution.
Just minutes after Saturday’s vote by the National People’s Congress, the Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, proclaimed him as China’s “great helmsman” in a smartphone alert. Those two words would have resonated throughout the world’s second-largest economy as they had previously been reserved for Chairman Mao.
“Xi will be chairman of everything,” Ether Yin, a partner at advisory firm Trivium China in Beijing, told Bloomberg. “He has effectively put himself at the center of the whole country.”