The 18th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) begins this week in Beijing. As the once-in-a-decade leadership transition takes place between the Hu–Wen fourth generation and the fifth generation of leadership headed by Xi Jinping, one name in particular (other than Bo Xilai) will be missing from the roster: Wang Yang.
Wang, currently serving as Guangdong Party Chief, is seen by many as a leading liberal voice within the Chinese leadership. Among other things, Wang is credited with pioneering the ‘Guangdong model’ of economic development, characterised by an emphasis on private enterprise and growth as opposed to wealth redistribution. Wang’s right-wing economics were in stark contrast to another rising star in the CPC, Bo Xilai, and his ‘Chongqing model’, which adopted Mao-era accoutrements and sought to expand state control of the economy. Wang and Bo are believed to have been bitter rivals. Many observers viewed Bo’s crackdown on organized crime in Chongqing as an implicit attack on Wang, his predecessor as Chongqing party boss, for tolerating the gangsters who Bo, assisted by his police chief Wang Lijun, so keenly persecuted.
With the dramatic fall of Bo Xilai from grace, and his impending incarceration if not execution for his involvement in the murder of Neil Heywood, it would seem that the ‘Chongqing model’ pioneered by Bo is also out of favour. The utter defeat of his rival might have propelled Wang Yang to the top of Chinese politics, but for the small village of Wukan, in Southern Guangdong Province.
In late 2011 Wukan shocked the world, and particularly the CPC leadership, when an anti-corruption protest escalated with the dramatic expulsion by residents of local government and police officials from the village. This action, the first of its kind in China, resulted in an 11-day stand-off between villagers and over 1,000 police officers. The protests only subsided when Wang’s administration acquiesced to the villagers’ demands for a free election (which took place in February 2012) and an investigation into accusations of land-grabbing by party officials.
Though Wang was praised by many outside observers for his deft handling of the protests, which resulted in minimal injuries and only one death (compared to frequently brutal crackdowns in other provinces), it is his soft-touch in Wukan that may have cost him his seat on the CPC Standing Committee.
Communist Party Leader Hu Jintao, who, along with his predecessor Jiang Zemin, has the most control over the make-up of the next standing committee, is believed to have blocked Wang’s promotion due to the Guangdong chief’s reformist views. “Hu Jintao would like Wang Yang off the Standing Committee, because he’s too reformist, too much risk of significant change,” said David Zweig, a political scientist at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology told Reuters last month.
While Wang may have missed out on a place in the Xi-Li administration, partly due to the conservatism of its predecessors, he may yet reach the heights of Chinese politics. Wang will be 67 in 2022 when the next leadership transition takes place, only a year older than Zhang Gaoli who is expected to be among those taking up the mantle of power next week. For now however, one of China’s worst leaders may have prevented the accession of one of its best.