Remember this guy?
His name is Ying Yong, and until Friday, he was the mayor of Shanghai, and in that capacity, presided over several important Beijing-approved experiments in capitalist market liberalization. One of those was recruiting (or rather, sheperding) Tesla to Shanghai in the middle of a trade war.
In other words, Ying was the man behind the infamous Elon Musk victory dance, and the man who has cost Tesla bears billions of dollars in losses (we think that makes him the Wizard of Shortsville).
From here on out, he's also going to be the man spearheading Beijing's COVID-19 containment efforts in Hubei, the epicenter of the outbreak and still the worst-hit province by far.
As Bloomberg reports, the 62-year-old mayor has been appointed the new top Communist Party official in Hubei after the scapegoating of its top two party officials.
One expert who spoke with Bloomberg explained what kind of message Ying's appointment sends to the Chinese people: With a reputation as a deft executive and a protege of President Xi, the Politburo is telling the people that the President is putting his best and brightest people on it. He's even willing to risk the reputation of one of his favorite proteges to protect them.
The choice speaks volumes about what President Xi Jinping values as he grapples with the biggest political crisis of his tenure. Ying, a former top judge who previously served under Xi in positions in Zhejiang province, is seen first and foremost as a proven loyalist.
"By sending a known ally to Hubei, Xi Jinping is also signaling the personal importance he attaches to Hubei’s recovery," said Ken Jarrett, a former U.S. consul general in Shanghai who’s now a senior adviser for the Albright Stonebridge Group. "This is intended to reassure the citizens of Hubei that the central government will provide all necessary help as Hubei emerges from this public health crisis."
It's also a major gamble. Because, as we hinted at above, Ying's perceived closeness to Xi, and the president's willingness to delegate such a major responsibility to Yong, mean that the party leadership won't be able to hide behind Yong's scapegoated corpse: No matter what happens, they will be directly in the line of fire for public outrage.
The shakeup indicates increasing unease among China’s top leaders with the political fallout from the virus and their desire to regain control of events. Ying’s success could have particular consequences for Xi, since he’s vested his confidence in the former Shanghai mayor to save the party’s prestige at home and abroad.
"The assignment shows the party with Xi Jinping at its core highly trusts me," Ying said after he took the post Thursday, with a obligatory nod to Xi’s paramount status in the party. He called the new job “a heavy responsibility” and “a major test."
Bloomberg published a brief biography of Ying and his ascension through the ranks of the Communist Party. The biography emphasizes Ying's loyalty to Xi through the years.
Ying, who joined the party in 1979, started as an official in the coastal province of Zhejiang, working for the Huangyan county industry bureau and the local police. He then spent much of his career in the province’s party-controlled legal system, rising to become president of the Zhejiang Higher People’s Court in 2006.
There, his career intersected with Xi, who led Zhejiang from 2002 to 2007. Ying later followed Xi to the neighboring metropolis of Shanghai and was appointed to lead the Shanghai Higher People’s Court in 2008.
Because of his overlapping experience with the future president in Zhejiang, Ying is often classified as a member of the "New Zhijiang Army," a reference to the greater Zhejiang region. It’s a well of connections that Xi has repeatedly tapped since taking power in 2012.
"His appointment reflects the belief that the Hubei party apparatus has performed poorly and needs a good shakeup," said Trey McArver, a partner at Beijing-based consulting firm Trivium China. "Ying is likely to focus on finding why the system performed poorly, and then taking steps to address the issue."
In 2017, Ying was appointed mayor of Shanghai, a city of more than 20 million that has long been a key base of political power. While he maintained a relatively low profile, he nevertheless gained experience managing an economy roughly equal in size to Poland’s.
Perhaps more importantly, he expressed vocal support for Xi’s key agenda items, once describing the most important consideration for reforming China’s state-owned enterprises as “maintaining the party’s leadership.” He also presided over “criticism and self-criticism” sessions in the Shanghai government last year, in line with Xi’s Marxist approach to political discipline.
Ying’s most high-profile moment was unquestionably the launch of the Tesla Model 3s last month, when he shook hands with Musk and congratulated him on the brand’s local success. “The cooperation between Tesla and Shanghai is just a beginning and has a promising future,” Ying said.
It was a rare moment in the limelight for a low-key loyal party operative. But as Xi faces down the greatest challenge of his rule in Hubei, he appears to have decided that quiet loyalty was what he needs most.
"Ying Yong’s strongest credential is a long affiliation with Xi," Jarrett said. “Xi wants someone he trusts as Hubei gets back on its feet again."
However, as Bloomberg reports, the reviews of Ying's performance in confronting the virus in Shanghai have been mixed...
Ying’s tenure as a virus-fighter has received mixed reviews, even on China’s heavily censored social media, where some complained about what they said was Shanghai’s slowness in tracking infected cases compared to other regions. One Weibo user named Little Landlady in Shanghai said the city needed to “detail every confirmed case like Tianjin, disclose their tracks like Anhui and manage those returning to Shanghai like Suzhou.”
...But we suspect that's the case throughout China.