Wang Qishan is head of the Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection (CCDI), the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) anti-corruption watchdog agency. Born in Qingdao in 1948, he was sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. There he met his wife, a daughter of Yao Yilin, a senior official from the Mao era through the 1980s. This link bestowed connections Wang needed for his ascent. Before joining the Politburo Standing Committee in November 2012, Wang served as vice premier under Wen Jiabao and on the Politburo from 2007 to 2012, where he was China’s chief representative to the Strategic Economic Dialogue. During this period, Wang gained a reputation in the United States for his able management of economic policy; as such, when he was chosen to head CCDI, some China watchers considered it a waste of his talents when equally insurmountable economic difficulties were, and still are, confronting China.
Called the “chief of the fire brigade,” Wang is known for his ability to stand toe-to-toe with tough challenges; he was brought in as mayor of Beijing during the 2003 SARS crisis and was charged with leading the response to the 2008 economic collapse. He has a reputation for being straightforward, a quality General Secretary Xi Jinping has found valuable in a CCP system that breeds obsequiousness and groupthink.
Why is he in the news?
In mid-March 2015, Wang announced his intention to travel to the United States to hammer out details on a possible, but unlikely, extradition treaty with American officials, as well as avenues for further cooperation and information sharing on corrupt officials. In preparation, he submitted a list of over 1,000 officials who have fled to the United States since the 2012 18th Party Congress.
This is part of a larger crackdown Wang is leading called Operation Skynet, aimed at rounding up officials and assets that have fled the country. He has now overseen work to arrest so-called economic fugitives from over 56 countries, with the United States being not only the latest, but the biggest.
What can we expect from him?
This trip is an important escalation in the campaign with a clear message: corrupt officials are not safe anywhere. It reflects Wang’s new focus on targeting “tigers” (senior officials, vs. “flies,” or lower officials) and the “factions” surrounding them. In 2013 and 2014, the anti-corruption drive was akin to using a sledgehammer to beat corruption; this year Wang is trading in the hammer for a scalpel.
Whether the United States will cooperate with Wang in a campaign viewed as extremely controversial outside China remains to be seen. He technically has two years left and must retire at the 19th Party Congress in November 2017 due to informal age rules. His efforts, however, might have made him so invaluable that Xi is considering bending the rules to let Wang stay on. Even so, this campaign will mark the latest achievement in Wang’s legacy of taking on challenges for the CCP; as such, expect him to aim for targets that are commensurate with such an accomplishment.