China's Next Class of Leaders Garners Buzz At Political Pageant

  • National People’s Congress offers rare look at up-and-comers
  • Officials tread carefully ahead of key leadership reshuffle

Over the past two weeks, the National People’s Congress in Beijing drew about 3,000 lawmakers from all corners of China -- and almost as many journalists to cover them.

For leaders ascending China’s opaque political system, the annual session has historically provided a rare platform to demonstrate personal style and show their command over the issues. This year, however, most looked to avoid any controversy as President Xi Jinping prepares for a twice-a-decade Communist Party reshuffle just months away.

While Xi doesn’t face journalists, Premier Li Keqiang will host one of China’s most anticipated news conferences of the year Wednesday morning. Here’s a look at some of the leaders who generated buzz and have a shot at advancing to the upper ranks of the party:

Ma Xingrui, 57

Ma Xingrui

Source: VCG/VCG/Getty Images

Guangdong’s new governor Ma Xingrui, who helps steer an economy slightly larger than Mexico, saw state-run media outlets run headlines on his proposal to create a “Big Bay Area” rivaling Los Angeles, New York and Tokyo by integrating the province with the former colonies of Hong Kong and Macau. Ma’s background running China’s lunar-exploration program has earned him much attention since being elevated to the party’s Central Committee in 2012. More than 300 reporters gathered at the briefing, which also included Hu Chunhua, Guangdong’s party chief and one of the youngest members of the 25-member Politburo.

Chen Miner, 56

Chen Miner in March 2016

Source: Imaginechina/AP Images

Reporters who came late had to wait outside since all the seats in the room were taken for Chen Miner’s annual public work session, most of which features him asking questions to deputies reading from scripts. The party secretary of Guizhou -- one of China’s poorest provinces and a proving ground for former President Hu Jintao -- used the almost 2.5-hour briefing to urge efforts to fight poverty, a key cause of Xi’s. As the session drew to a close, one reporter pleaded for a chance for foreign journalists to ask questions. Chen initially agreed, but cut the reporter off after he identified his organization as the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. “I think next time we should make a better arrangement for the briefing, to make sure everyone has a chance to ask questions,” Chen said. “But today it’s too late. We have to leave.”

Li Qiang, 57

Li Qiang in Jan. 2016

Source: Zhejiang Daily/Imaginechina/AP Images

While dozens of foreign reporters showed up to hear Li Qiang, he fielded only questions from local journalists in a briefing that lasted for nearly three hours. The party secretary of prosperous Jiangsu had received a personal endorsement last September from Liu He -- Xi’s chief finance-and-economic adviser -- over his efforts to develop “small-town economies,” or clusters of hi-tech and innovation-focused businesses. During this year’s NPC meeting, Li echoed Xi by suggesting that improving livelihoods was more important than hitting economic growth targets.

Li Xiaopeng, 57

Li Xiaopeng

Source: VCG/VCG/Getty Images

Li Xiaopeng, China’s new transport minister, was one of the few senior leaders who spoke with reporters on the red-carpeted “Avenue of Ministers” while arriving at the Great Hall of the People. The “princeling” son of former Premier Li Peng thanked “media friends” and easily handled the shouted questions about subjects ranging from traffic jams to a popular bike-sharing scheme. Li was chief executive officer of the nation’s biggest power-generation company China Huaneng Group for more than eight years before serving as governor of the northern coal province of Shanxi until last year.

Ying Yong, 59

Ying Yong

Photographer: Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

Among the most covered annual sessions is one by the Shanghai delegation, mostly because Xi has attended each year since taking power in 2012. This year that attention spilled over to Ying Yong, a former subordinate of Xi’s in the eastern province of Zhejiang who became the financial center’s mayor in January. At a joint briefing with the party chief attended by more than 200 local and foreign reporters, Ying echoed Xi’s call for an “embroidery”-level of precision in management and pledged to run Shanghai with “uber-meticulousness.”

Cai Qi, 61

Cai Qi

Photographer: Bergen C/Imaginechina/AP Images

Cai Qi used his national debut as Beijing mayor to say the government should take a measured approach to solving key problems. The comments were in stark contrast to his predecessor Wang Anshun, who once pledged to cut off his own head if he couldn’t tame pollution by 2017. The government “shouldn’t avoid problems, but it shouldn’t over-promise either,” Cai told almost 80 media outlets in an open session. Cai was an office director for the National Security Commission, which was founded and chaired by Xi, and has worked under the president for more than two decades in multiple provinces.

Chen Quanguo, 61

Chen Quanguo, center, in Jan. 2011

Photographer: Hu Xiaohua/Imaginechina/AP Images

Dozens of journalists arrived at the Great Hall of People almost two hours before a news conference featuring Chen Quanguo, the new party chief of Xinjiang in China’s restive far west. Yet in the end he never showed up -- one of the few top regional leaders to avoid meeting the press. Chen’s comments were anticipated because he has handled some of China’s toughest jobs, from previously dealing with ethnic conflict in Tibet to now overseeing a region that has seen discord among Turkic-speaking Uighurs, China’s largest Muslim minority group.

— With assistance by Keith Zhai, Ting Shi, and Xiaoqing Pi

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