As Reshuffle Approaches, China’s ‘Liberal’ Wang Yang Considered For Next Premier

BEIJING – When Wang Yang was the Chinese Communist Party boss of economic powerhouse Guangdong province, the man now considered a top contender for China’s next premier displayed a liberal streak that has faded since Xi Jinping took power.

Wang made his mark in Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong, by pushing for the modernization of rusting industries and promoting socially inclusive policies.

In late 2011, during a standoff over land grabs in the village of Wukan, Wang fired corrupt officials and allowed protest leaders to run in grassroots elections the following spring, winning international praise.

Some of those liberal-minded moves in Guangdong, however, were later scaled back or scrapped under Wang’s watch, with further restrictions imposed on the media and civil society, including labour groups, after Xi became China’s leader a decade ago and set the country on an increasingly authoritarian path.

Wang, 67, is widely regarded as one of the leading candidates to succeed Li Keqiang as China’s prime minister when he steps down in March.

While the premiership is ranked second in the leadership hierarchy, it is seen as less influential as Xi consolidates his own power and tightens the state grip on economic management.

Xi is expected to break with precedent by securing a third five-year leadership term at the Communist Party congress that begins on Oct. 16.

A self-made man who worked at a food factory in his teens to support his single mother and family, Wang later reportedly caught the eye of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and forged close ties with former president Hu Jintao.

In person, according to some who have met him, Wang is self-confident and charismatic. He has preferred to leave his hair grey instead of dyeing it jet black like other leaders.

At an informal gathering with journalists in Guangzhou more than a decade ago, Wang made unscripted, occasionally humorous remarks on a wide range of topics. It was a style that contrasts with the stiffer public persona typically adopted by top party leaders, who nowadays rarely if ever interact with foreign media.

During a meeting with then U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in 2013, Wang cracked a joke on gay marriage, and said China and the United States couldn’t afford to divorce like media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his then-wife, the China-born Wendi Deng, as the price would be “too high”.

“He’s undoubtedly the most liberal of the entire Politburo,” Willy Lam, a China expert and adjunct professor at Hong Kong’s Chinese University, told Reuters.

Wang was passed over for promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2012, but as vice premier he helped oversee China’s external economic relations including with the United States.

In 2017, he was promoted to the party’s highest ruling body, where he ranks fourth among the seven members. He is also chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a political advisory body.

The Youth League

Like Li Keqiang and Vice Premier Hu Chunhua – another premiership contender – Wang has ties to the Communist Youth League, a faction seen to be a rival to Xi’s.

However, some party-watchers argue Wang would have gained Xi’s trust after having kept a low profile and serving loyally alongside him on the standing committee over the past five years.

In recent years under Xi, Wang has seemingly tempered his reformist tendencies, echoing the party’s tough line on sensitive political issues including Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet, while expressing support for Xi.

As the head of the CPPCC, Wang led a policy group on China’s western region of Xinjiang, where up to a million ethnic Muslims were detained in mass camps.

Before a visit to Xinjiang in May by the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights that was widely criticised by rights groups and western governments, Wang said Muslim ethnic groups there were now living with “happiness and security”, according to the official Xinhua news agency. – Reuters

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