BEIJING -- Wang Qishan, a trusted partner of Chinese President Xi Jinping, has been elected as his vice president.
The National People's Congress on Saturday overwhelmingly voted in the 69-year-old former chief of Xi's anti-corruption campaign. Only one of the total 2,970 delegates at the congress voted against Wang.
The congress, China's annual legislative session, is known for rubber-stamping the leadership's proposals. Members voted unanimously to renew Xi's term as president and chairman of the Central Military Commission. As they had approved a constitutional amendment earlier in the week to remove term limits on the presidency and vice presidency, Xi and Wang could govern indefinitely.
After the results were announced, the usually poker-faced Xi broke into a smile and shook hands with Wang at the center of the Great Hall of the People.
Wang was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party's top decision-making body, but stepped down in October due to a party norm that requires officials aged 68 and above to make way for younger generations. Much speculation then ensued about what new roles he might take on, given his close ties with Xi.
As the head of the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, he oversaw disciplinary actions against 1.5 million officials, including the highest Chinese officials ever charged with corruption. Wang, reportedly a fan of the U.S. version of the TV series "House of Cards," was mostly in charge of economic issues as vice premier from 2008 to 2013 and led trade talks with the EU and U.S.
A history major, Wang rose quickly through party ranks, beginning as a policy researcher for rural affairs in the 1980s before his appointment as governor of the state-run Construction Bank of China and the number two man of Guangdong Province, an economic powerhouse, in the mid-1990s.
Through a career spanning nearly half a century, Wang's problem-solving skills have earned him the "troubleshooter" moniker. He gained attention during the Asian financial crisis for resolving the debt crisis of the Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corporation, then the second-largest trust company in the country. He restructured the group on the advice of Goldman Sachs' Henry Paulson and solved the debt crisis in three years.
"Wang managed the largest bankruptcy restructuring in China's history and prevented a banking crisis that could have crippled the country's growth," said Paulson, who later became the U.S. Treasury Secretary.
His rise to the top echelons of the party took place in 2012 when he was appointed to the Standing Committee. This came after he succeeded in bringing down inflation after its rise to an 11-year high of 7.1% in January 2008.
Given his credibility and the relationship with Xi, Wang is expected to perform beyond a largely ceremonial role as vice president in diplomacy and internal reforms.
Beijing-based political commentator Zhang Lifan expects Wang to focus on thorny U.S.-China trade issues in his new role.
"China has been trying to avoid trade war with the U.S. It makes sense to appoint an experienced 'firefighter' for the work," he said.
But Zhang doubted Wang could borrow much his experience as vice-premier between 2008 and 2013. "The world is very different now from 10 years ago," he said.
Wu Qiang, a former political science professor at Tsinghua University, said Wang's role would be broader, helping Xi to enhance his authority since both men had worked well together in the past five years. By doing so, the pair would be able to take more administrative power from the State Council, China's cabinet, led by premier Li Keqiang. "What they are trying to do is blur the boundaries between the party and the state," he said.
The congress on Saturday also passed proposals to revamp state administration into a leaner and efficient body, controlled tightly by the party.
In line with precedent, Xi himself has been reinstalled as the head of the People's Liberation Army, promising to accelerate collaborations between the military and the private sector as part of China's defense upgrade strategy. The strategy is to promote the transfer of military technology to the private sector in order to develop it into an industry.
Xi recently told top military commands that the ongoing defense reforms, which include the creation of a state agency to manage the welfare of servicemen, "has effectively removed institutional obstacles" that had hampered growth, state media outlet China Daily wrote on Tuesday.