Shortly after Steve Bannon visited Hong Kong last week to give a closed-door speech at a big investor conference hosted by CLSA, a Chinese state-owned brokerage and investment group, Trump's former strategist flew to Beijing for a "secret meeting with the second most powerful Chinese Communist party official", less than a month after the former chief White House strategist declared that America was at “economic war with China”, the FT has reported.
The meeting occurred at Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound, where Bannon meet with Wang Qishan, the head of the Chinese Communist party’s anti-corruption campaign.
"The Chinese reached out to Bannon before his Hong Kong speech because they wanted to ask him about economic nationalism and populist movements which was the subject of his speech," the FT quoted a "person familiar" with the situation.
Mr Wang, who is seen as the second most powerful person in China after President Xi Jinping, arranged through an intermediary for a 90-minute meeting after learning that Mr Bannon was speaking on the topic, according to the second person, who stressed there was no connection to President Donald Trump’s upcoming visit to China.
As the FT adds, the (not so) secret meeting between Bannon and Wang will "stoke speculation that the Chinese anti-graft tsar, who has purged hundreds of senior government officials and military officers for corruption in recent years, may continue to work closely with Mr Xi during his second term in office."
Under recent precedent, Mr Wang, who turned 69 in July, would be expected to step down from the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist party’s most powerful body. But his many admirers argue that as China’s most knowledgeable and experienced financial technocrat, he should stay on to help Mr Xi force through a series of stalled financial and economic reforms.
Incidentally, before his appointment as head of the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Wang was Beijing’s point man for Sino-US relations and has played a pivotal role in most of China’s key financial reforms over the past 20 years. And while Wang no longer has an official government position, he has continued to meet regularly with international figures such as former US Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde and the hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio. Earlier this week Wang also held an unexpected meeting in Beijing with Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong.
Ironically, while Bannon himself no longer has an official post, many pundits suggest that his influence on Donald Trump is just as expansive now that he has returned to run Breitbart, as it was during his brief tenure on the administration. During last week's CLSA conference, Bannon said he left the White House to be Trump’s “wingman” and to campaign on behalf of congressional candidates who would back the president’s “America first” agenda. Furthermore, Bannon has long argued that the US needs to take a tougher economic stance against China, which he argues is responsible for the hollowing out of manufacturing jobs in the US.
To be sure, the topic of bilateral trade between China and the US has become as a core focus for the two nations. After Trump won the election, China frequently approached Jared Kushner to help "navigate the US-China relationship." But Kushner has taken much less of a role in recent months leaving Rex Tillerson, secretary of state, as point man. While the former Exxon CEO has been leading efforts to get Beijing to put pressure on North Korea, some Chinese experts have expressed concern that the administration does not have a clear point person to handle the relationship with China.
Trade will be a key topic as well this week, when Wilbur Ross, the US commerce secretary who worked closely with Mr Bannon to press for tougher trade measures against China, travels to Beijing to pave the way for Trump’s November summit with Xi. The trip comes as the US struggles to engineer some of the measures against China that Mr Trump talked about during the campaign and after his election. Efforts to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium imports have stalled amid concerns about the effect on the US economy.
In July, Mr Ross asked Mr Trump to consider a deal on reducing Chinese steel overcapacity that he had crafted with Wang Yang, a Chinese vice-premier. But Mr Trump rejected the offer and dismissed a second improved version, telling his commerce secretary that he wanted to find ways to impose tariffs on Chinese goods.
As for what Bannon discussed with Wang during the informal summit, it remains to be disclosed.