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Xi’s the one, but Hu’s replacing Wen?

By Damien Ma

Few things capture as much attention as the Chinese economy these days. But the politics behind who will run that economy, now the world's second-largest, are just as intriguing. For the last decade, the world has grown accustomed to the avuncular familiarity of Premier Wen Jiabao. He was the economic czar -- within a collective leadership -- who steered China through an era of unprecedented growth and oversaw a gigantic rescue package in the darkest hours of the financial crisis. But as "Grandpa Wen" relinquishes the reins next year, the question of who will take his place remains unsettled. Unlike Xi Jinping, whose lock on the presidency and party chairmanship seems certain, the candidate who was once considered a shoe-in for premier, Li Keqiang, no longer looks so invincible. Instead, the stock of a reform-minded contender seems to be rising.

That contender is Vice Premier Wang Qishan, a face most familiar to those in Washington as the leading figure on the Chinese side of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Back home, Wang is known as a competent manager with a wealth of experience in the financial sector, having served in the central bank and headed the China Construction Bank. He has also earned a reputation as something of a "crisis defuser" -- both dealing with the SARS outbreak as Beijing mayor and playing an important role in shaping China's response to the economic crisis. Wang's engagement with top US officials also earns him credibility as something of a statesman. As for his aspirations, one wonders what lay behind his decision to give an extended interview to the US media, a rarity for top Chinese officials (see: Wen Jiabao and Fareed Zakaria). Was he advertising his capabilities to Beijing by holding court with Tim Geithner on a serious show like Charlie Rose?    

On the flip side, did the heir apparent fall from grace? Not exactly. Li arguably still has the best shot of becoming premier, given that he's President Hu Jintao's close ally and protégé. But questions are surfacing about his managerial capabilities and experience, given the challenging economic transition that Beijing hopes to engineer. Such doubts are not entirely Li's fault. He was dealt some of the toughest portfolios in the Politburo -- namely, food safety and social housing. But it will be up to Li to prove his opponents (who argue that his achievements are few) wrong.

Several other seats at the apex of Chinese political power remain unsettled, meaning that the internal jostling and gamesmanship will continue and could spill into the public arena more than the opaque mandarins would like. (Exhibit A: the swirling rumors that Jiang Zemin had died). This will be a time for extra caution, as Beijing turns inward to manage the nation's sensitive domestic politics. For those of us on the outside, perhaps it's time not just to learn names like Bachmann and Pawlenty, but also to begin getting the Chinese-language intonations right on Li (third tone) and Wang (second tone).

Damien Ma is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.

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