Beijing Calls in a Troubleshooter

If Mayor Wang stops SARS, he'll have a shot at the top ranks

It's one of the toughest jobs in Asia right now: stemming the SARS epidemic and containing the panic in China's capital. That's why in China's highest political circles, all eyes are on Wang Qishan, a veteran political fix-it man and acting mayor of Beijing since Apr. 22. Wang's predecessor, Meng Xuenong, was booted from office for failing to rein in the spread of SARS -- or, by some accounts, for covering up the extent of the epidemic. If Wang succeeds where Meng failed, then the legitimacy of President Hu Jintao's new government will be assured -- and Wang could eventually get a shot at the highest echelons of power.

Wang has taken to the new job with gusto. As China's capital confronts its biggest crisis since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the 54-year-old mayor has been everywhere -- touring vegetable markets to assure panicked residents the food supply won't run out, meeting with nervous heads of multinational companies, and visiting the rushed, round-the-clock construction site of a 1,000-patient SARS hospital outside Beijing. He has instituted daily reporting of SARS cases, ordered the quarantining of buildings and hospitals, and implemented a public education program about the disease. And to foster closer cooperation with the World Health Organization, he has provided the group with an office adjacent to his. "I hope that every official and citizen has full confidence in this: There is no question that we will conquer SARS," Wang said on Apr. 30 at his first press conference as mayor.

Despite such assurances, some question whether Wang -- known as a consummate Communist Party operator -- is truly committed to telling the whole truth. "Coming clean might not be one of his reflexes," says a Western banker in Beijing who has had many contacts with Wang. "In many ways, he's from the old school." And WHO officials are still concerned about the slow pace of sharing key data, such as who is getting the disease and when it was contracted. "We need to know more in order to be helpful," WHO China representative Dr. Henk Bekedam said on Apr. 29.

But there's no doubt that Wang is a tough and capable troubleshooter, and he has a long list of accomplishments to prove it. He spent a decade in banking and in 1995 oversaw the creation of China International Capital Corp., China's first-ever joint-venture bank, with Morgan Stanley (MWD ). He led the restructuring of China's stodgy telecom sector with the $4.2 billion listing of China Mobile Ltd. in 1997. Then, in 1998, Wang managed tricky negotiations with foreign investors facing as much as $1.6 billion in losses after the bankruptcy of Guangdong International Trust & Investment Corp. "He is always called upon as a firefighter and problem-solver," says Fred Hu, managing director of Goldman Sachs Asia (GS ), who has known Wang for nearly two decades.

Wang has solid political credentials, too. He served for two years as vice-governor of Guangdong province and most recently has been party secretary for the southern island province of Hainan. He has sterling family connections: His wife is the daughter of former Vice-Premier Yao Yilin -- an association that's bound to be useful as he wrestles with Beijing's notoriously fractious government. And Wang -- a chain smoker and casual dresser who eschews ties in favor of an open collar -- often quotes Chinese proverbs and has a common touch unusual in Chinese politicians. "He can make complicated issues appear simpler," says a former associate in Beijing. "He presents things in a way that most can understand."

He'll certainly need all his skills as concern over SARS takes its toll on Beijing's economy. Key to curbing the damage will be convincing spooked foreign investors to stay put -- no small feat, as thousands of multinational employees are already packing their bags. So on Apr. 26, Wang met with the heads of 17 major multinational companies to hear their concerns and promised a new openness in dealing with the epidemic. "He seems very committed to being more transparent," says John Yam, director of external relations at Procter & Gamble Co., who attended the meeting.

Wang's feverish activity appears to be paying off. Right now, the prevailing feeling in Beijing is that former President Jiang Zemin bears the most responsibility for China's initial lack of action on SARS and that Hu's new team is taking the right steps to slow the spread of the disease. That's good news for Wang. And if he can contain the crisis in the capital, it can only be good news for a nervous world as well.

By Dexter Roberts in Beijing, with Mark L. Clifford in Hong Kong

— With assistance by Mark L Clifford

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