As the People's Bank of China's longtime leader Zhou Xiaochuan prepares for retirement in March, speculation about who Chinese leader Xi Jinping might choose to succeed him is mounting - and according to Reuters, a formerly dark horse candidate is now being viewed with increasing certainty as Xi's likely pick.
His name is Liu He, and he's both a senior government bureaucrat and longtime friend of Xi. Insiders say Liu has leapfrogged two other candidates as part of the wide-ranging government reshuffle that has accompanied Xi's elevation to supreme leader during November's Congress.
If he is, in fact, chosen to succeed Zhou, Liu could become one of the most powerful central-bank governors in modern Chinese history.
Liu may be in a position to become one of China’s most powerful economic and financial officials ever, as he is already top adviser to Xi on economic policy and is also expected to become vice premier overseeing the economy.
Liu would replace current PBOC chief, 70-year-old Zhou Xiaochuan, who is China’s longest-running head of the central bank, having taken the job in 2002. Zhou is expected to retire around the time of the annual session of parliament in March, sources previously told Reuters.
The change would be part of a wider government reshuffle following the 19th Communist Party Congress in October last year, during which Xi laid out his vision for China’s long-term development, and elevated his key allies.
Speculation has been rife for months over the choice of the next central bank governor. Xi will have the final say, and the sources noted that while Liu is clearly the frontrunner he is not yet certain to get the job.
Just before last October’s Congress, sources told Reuters that China’s banking regulator head Guo Shuqing and veteran banker Jiang Chaoliang were leading contenders for the PBOC job.
Not only would Liu - who was educated at Harvard and speaks fluent English - be responsible for running the central bank, Reuters says he is also set to become one of China's four vice premiers who would oversee the economy and financial sector.
Reuters sources previously said that Liu was in line to become one of China's four vice premiers, and that he would oversee the economy and financial sector. Whether he might hold both positions concurrently is unclear. As Reuters points out, only Zhu Rongji in the early-1990s held both the posts of vice premier and central bank governor simultaneously. Zhu later went on to become China’s premier from 1998-2003.
As Reuters points out, the PBOC is different from Western central banks in that it doesn't have control over monetary policy - decisions on interest rates and the yuan are still governed by policies determined by the Party leadership. In a strategy that has repeatedly been employed by Chinese officials, Liu dangled the prospect of an open, internationalized economy in front of his audience at Davos last month, saying the country might soon roll out market-opening measures that would exceed "international expectations."
But the next leader of the central bank will face tough challenges as he will have to walk a tightrope between ensuring economic stability and pushing reforms to rein in debt risks.
But perhaps most importantly of all, Liu has one key advantage over his rivals that, in addition to his friendship with and support of Xi Jinping, would probably aid his oversight of one of the world's largest economies: He currently heads a government office in charge of preserving financial stability, and as a result almost undoubtedly had a hand in last night's shocking news that Chinese regulators had decided to take control of Anbang Insurance - one of the country's "big four" hyperleveraged conglomerates. That move was first announced by the China Insurance Regulatory Commission.
He was also widely seen by political analysts as being behind the voice of an unnamed “authoritative person” who wrote in the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, in May 2016 warning about risks from the country’s debt-driven growth model.
Liu, like Zhou, stands out among Chinese bureaucrats because of his grey hair. Many top officials dye their hair jet-black.
Liu, who currently heads the General Office of the ruling Communist Party’s Central Leading Group for Financial and Economic Affairs, is also set to become the head of the cabinet-level Financial Stability and Development Committee (FSDC), sources previously told Reuters.
He has been closely following Xi on regional tours and meetings with foreign leaders. When then-U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon visited Beijing in 2013, Xi introduced Liu as “very important to me”, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The PBOC also recently shut down VIX trading, purportedly to halt market turbulence. Liu and Xi share a uniquely Chinese family history: that is, both their families were purged during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, and both their fathers were senior government officials.
"Without the reflection on the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution, it is impossible for China to have today’s economic growth," Liu said in an article published in 2017.
Amazingly, sources tell Reuters that Liu and Xi have been friendly since their teens, and have always kept in touch.