Zhou Xiaochuan has one of the toughest jobs on earth right now: The chief of the People's Bank of China, the central bank, is responsible for slowing down the country's overheating economy without a hard landing. He's in charge of cleaning up some $865 billion in bad loans at banks, but has to be careful not to spook Chinese faith in the long-term prospects of the banking system. And he must manage foreign pressure to revalue the yuan, while ensuring that China's financial reforms continue on their slow but steady march.
The 56-year-old Zhou has plenty of experience to draw from. Like China's President Hu Jintao, he studied at China's top economics institution, Tsinghua University. He won kudos during the 1997-98 Asian crisis as the point man on efforts to maintain the Chinese currency, bucking pressures to devalue the yuan to help suffering exporters. In 1998-2000, he served as president of China Construction Bank and oversaw the creation of asset-management companies charged with working out the banking system's bad debt. And from 2000 to 2002, he was chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, where he spearheaded a cleanup of corruption at listed companies. That won praise from reform-minded economists, though it angered millions of Chinese punters when shares of the targeted companies plummeted.
That's not to say he hasn't had any misses. As head of the securities commission, Zhou tried to sell off state-held shares. The effort ran aground when the sales made the markets swoon. But even in adversity, he doesn't give up. Although he has been attacked as too "Westernized" -- a slur among China's old guard -- for promoting Chinese trained abroad into top financial jobs, he hasn't wavered in his support for them.
Can this seasoned technocrat pull off a soft landing? The jury is still out. Whatever happens, though, it would be hard for China to find anyone more suited to the challenge.