Former Chinese Communist Party heavyweight Wang Qishan was a figure to be feared.
For the past five years, he led the Party’s anti-corruption campaign to purge the ranks of misbehaving officials—many of whom also happened to be members of the opposing faction to the current leadership. More than a million officials were taken down in that period.
But when it came time for the Party’s once-in-five-years leadership transition, Xi couldn’t keep his right-hand man by his side. Wang had reached the retirement age for senior posts set by Party convention. In the battle for power with the opposition faction—those loyal to former leader Jiang Zemin—Wang was kicked out of the Politburo Standing Committee, the Party’s most powerful decision-making body.
Many China watchers wondered if that would be the end of Wang’s political career, or if Xi had something else in mind for his ally.
On Jan. 29, there appeared clues about Wang’s future. Wang was selected as a representative for Hunan Province within China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress.
It is highly unusual for a retired Politburo Standing Committee member to be assigned to this post—especially as Wang had not received any other official appointment after the leadership transition in October 2017.
After the news was announced, the Hong Kong Economic Journal predicted that the appointment would pave the way for Wang to become vice-chair when the Congress convenes in March.
Citing an anonymous official “with an understanding of the Chinese leadership’s thinking,” the Wall Street Journal reported that Xi is tasking Wang with diplomatic affairs with the United States. According to the official, Wang’s reputation as a problem-solver who can handle crises has come in handy amid growing tensions between the two countries over trade and other issues.
However, Epoch Times political commentator Xia Xiaoqiang noted that the vice-chair position does not have concrete responsibilities, and is more of a symbolic role.
“In fact, in history, there have been non-Party members who became vice-chairs, such as Song Qingling [wife of Sun Yat-sen, founder of the first republic of China] and Rong Yiren [once denounced as “capitalist”].”
Xia believed Wang’s new appointment was a signal to the Jiang faction that the Xi camp still has the upper hand. But it remains to be seen whether Wang will have real power.
Hu Ping, a U.S.-based commentator, also felt the significance of Wang’s role has yet to be determined. The scope of his powers depends on how much Xi decides to assign to the role—as the vice chair essentially acts an assistant to the Party leader.
“It could be a figurehead role with no real power or a very important role,” he said. But given Xi’s demonstrated trust for Wang, Hu believes it is likely “Wang could be the most powerful vice chair in Chinese Communist Party history.”
Meanwhile, China scholar Xie Xuanjun told Radio Free Asia that he believes Wang’s political resurgence is to help Xi serve another term as leader in 2022—as Xi would then be breaking Party convention to allow himself to serve a third term.
Gu Qing’er contributed to this report.