Veteran Chinese politician Wang Qishan has made his comeback.
Meet China’s new point man on Washington
He returned to the center stage of China’s political arena over the weekend, after being confirmed by the rubber-stamp legislature as vice-president.
Wang is seen as a “firefighter” who has consistently overseen some of the country’s trickiest and most high-profile campaigns.
Until stepping down from the top level of Chinese politics last year, Wang headed the national anti-corruption watchdog, which was responsible for disciplining 1.5 million Communist Party officials.
President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive has helped Xi to consolidate his position at the very top of the party.
Wang’s triumphant return to the limelight at age 69 puts him in a position that no longer has any official term limits – a clear signal of the trust Xi has in him.
“He is too important to be replaced,” Beijing-based scholar Wu Qiang, who used to teach at Tsinghua University, told Inkstone.
Wang’s formal portfolio of duties hasn’t yet been announced, but most China watchers believe he'll be focusing on China’s relationship with the US.
Wang's task will be a daunting one. China and the US are on the brink of a trade war, with President Donald Trump threatening to impose tariffs of $60 billion or more on Chinese goods.
Here’s what you need to know about China’s point man on Washington.
Who is he?
A native of Shanxi province, Wang has a history degree from China’s Northwest University.
He started developing his economics expertise in the 1980s, when he was tasked with rural development research and policy.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Wang was given a series of leadership roles at China Construction Bank.
He was parachuted into the position of Beijing mayor in 2003, when the incumbent was sacked due to his mishandling of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic which ravaged the capital city. His work was applauded.
In 2007 he was promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest governing council of the Chinese Communist Party.
Under President Hu Jintao, Wang was appointed as chair of the Economic Track of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
Is he going to be the foreign minister?
No, he isn’t. Wang Yi, a 64-year-old veteran diplomat, has just been appointed foreign minister.
But Wang Qishan (no relation to Wang Yi) has a much higher position in the political hierarchy.
“It is possible that Wang Yi will [also] be handling China-US relations, but he won't necessarily be the one taking the center stage,” says a mainland scholar, who declined to be named.
In the past five years, Xi has been promoting the idea of “major-country diplomacy” and “head-of-state diplomacy.” During his first five-year term in office, Xi made official visits to more than 50 countries.
What will he focus on?
Mary Gallagher, a China expert at the University of Michigan, says Wang’s main job will be to keep relations with the US on an even keel.
“The environment in DC is very bad right now for US-China relations, with tariffs, sanctions, and restrictions on Chinese goods, investment and even people likely to come soon,” she says.
“Wang will have his hands full with the trade issue.”
The US-China relations are in a perilous state, and it is possible that China will retaliate. “If the United States takes actions that harm China’s interests, China will have to take measures to firmly protect our legitimate rights,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said.
At the moment, it’s unclear if Wang will be involved in non-US foreign policy matters, a foreign diplomat who declined to be named told the South China Morning Post.
Is he suited to the job?
The consensus is that Wang is qualified for the job of managing relations with Washington.
Wang’s previous role as the head of China’s anti-corruption agency is a clear indicator of Xi’s trust. He is also believed to be experienced in managing economic issues.
“Wang is close to Xi Jinping, so he can speak with authority on China’s interests and concerns,” Gallagher says.
He was also in charge of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Wang also enjoys close ties with Wall Street figures, including former US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and John L. Thornton, a former president of Goldman Sachs.
“The level of detail he knew about the US was stunning — the economics of regions, the economics of cities, American infrastructure, the workings of the American economy,” former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon told the Financial Times.
In 2009, Hank Paulson described Wang to Time magazine as “decisive and inquisitive” with a “wicked sense of humor.”
Why is Wang Qishan's political comeback so surprising?
Last year, Wang stepped down from his position as a member of the Politburo Standing Committee.
As an unspoken rule, members who reach the age of 68 have to retire. Exiting that committee usually means the formal end of one’s political career.
Instead of retiring, Wang has been given the job of vice-president, a role that was previously largely ceremonial.
But Wang’s experience, closeness to the president and the recent removal of term limits in the role all mean that he is expected to wield much more political power than his predecessors.
The anonymous mainland scholar told Inkstone that the current framework leaves a lot of room for Xi to define the role and power of the vice-president.
“There is no boundary,” he says.
A lot is at stake in US-China relations, and Wang will have a lot on his plate.