Photographer: Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images

Xi Eyes Megacity Mayor for China's Economic Team

  • Huang Qifan among entourage for Xi's recent U.S. trip
  • Huang's career has spanned cities of Shanghai and Chongqing

When Chinese President Xi Jinping stepped from his Boeing Co. 747-300 in Everett near Seattle to start his state visit to the U.S. last month, following closely was Huang Qifan.

The mayor of Chongqing -- a megacity with more people than Texas -- was among half a dozen regional leaders picked to join Xi on the diplomatic mission. The president told a gathering of American executives that the southwestern metropolis and the Hewlett-Packard Co. computer factory located there symbolized the deep bonds between the two countries’ technology industries.

Huang’s appearance alongside China’s most powerful man was the latest sign of how much his political profile is on the rise. Xi named the 63-year-old former coking plant manager to the exclusive panel that drafted his signature economic plan in 2013 and he was the only regional chief selected for the 28-member group charged with promoting Xi’s blueprint around the country.

Now, Huang is being considered for a top economic post as Xi looks to reshape his team after recent turmoil in China’s financial markets, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. Possible jobs include leadership of the stock regulator or a panel led by Xi that’s charged with steering economic reforms, said the people, who asked not be identified discussing personnel matters and because a decision is not final.

Huang Qifan, mayor of Chongqing. Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg
Huang Qifan, mayor of Chongqing. Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

“Huang is a financial expert, he knows how the market works,” said Hu Xingdou, a professor of political economy at the Beijing Institute of Technology. “He has the talent to become a leading economic planner in the country and has a lot of room for future promotion.”

Top Performer

Located almost more than 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) inland from China’s eastern financial hub of Shanghai, Chongqing was long best known for its spicy cuisine and role as China’s war capital during the Japanese invasion. Huang took over as mayor in 2010.

Its economic success owes something at least to the broader growth China enjoyed over the past decade. Chongqing has been among the top three performers of the 31 regions by growth since 2009. Its output rose 11 percent in the first half of the year compared to a nationwide pace of 7 percent.

“The case of Chongqing demonstrates that local governments could play an active role in economic growth,” economists Bian Quanshui and Liang Hong at China International Capital Corp. wrote in a July report, though they noted the automobile and electronics industries, which make up about half of Chongqing’s industrial output, face slowing production and sales growth.

Huang is not far off the retirement age of 65, though the leadership has enabled People’s Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan, 67, to stay on.

Factory Floor

He started working in Shanghai at the coking plant as a 16-year-old; after time at a local college, he returned as an engineer and later became deputy factory head. He moved into the local economic office in 1984 and later helped found Pudong, a sparkling glass-and-steel district in eastern Shanghai that became the home of the Shanghai Stock Exchange.

Huang brought his experience with economic zones to Chongqing, launching one soon after he became mayor. The municipality became the beachhead for Beijing’s plan to develop the vast western provinces via production from companies like Ford Motor CO., Acer Inc. and Apple Inc. supplier Foxconn Technology Co.

“Chongqing will become the economic center for the upper Yangtze River zone,” Huang was quoted by the Chongqing Evening News as saying in 2010. “Shanghai has become a beautiful youth from a junior, but Chongqing is a totally undeveloped village girl.”

Bo Xilai

Huang has risen through the ranks despite the turmoil that surrounded the municipality during the downfall of Bo Xilai, the one-time Communist Party secretary in Chongqing who was sentenced to life in jail in 2013 for graft and abuse of power. In 2010, Huang described his working relationship with Bo as “like a duck to water.” Faxes and calls for comment to Chongqing’s foreign affairs office were not answered.

During Bo’s tenure Chongqing also became known for its crackdown on organized crime, with more than 1,500 people punished for alleged bribery and smuggling. The clampdown extended to the business elite, with billionaire Li Qiang, who owned a transport business, sentenced to 20 years in jail for leading a criminal gang.

Huang played a central role in making Chongqing the starting point for the 700-meter Yuxinou train that connects China to Germany via Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Poland. The railway is a plank of Xi’s "One Road One Belt" strategy to link China more directly with trading partners in Europe. Xi welcomed a cargo train from Chongqing during a trip to Duisburg, Germany in 2014.

State Firms

Huang has some experience working with state-owned enterprises, at one point urging local SOEs to contribute up to 30 percent of their profits to the government to fund infrastructure and social programs. Government guidelines charting a plan to overhaul SOEs includes similar ideas, suggesting Huang may have been involved.

Still, it’s "naive" to to pin hopes on a single person to tackle China’s economic woes, said said Yuan Gangming, an economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. For the stock market, it doesn’t matter who is in charge unless structural problems are tackled, he said. "Unrealistic expectations that Huang can solve all problems reflect fear, confusion and despair among some investors."

Chinese media have done their part to promote Huang’s status. A June article in Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao newspaper reported Huang lectured winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics about Chongqing’s role in the vanguard of Xi’s economic reforms, part of a “new normal” of slower growth.

“The basic for the new normal is to push forward growth driven by innovation,” Huang was quoted as saying. “This will happen in Chongqing as well as the whole nation.”

— With assistance by Keith Zhai

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