Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to bring decision-making of the financial system further under his control with the likely revival of a powerful committee to coordinate financial policy and the possible appointment of a key ally in a top position at the central bank.
Authorities are considering reviving the long-disbanded Central Financial Work Commission to allow the ruling Communist Party to assert more control over financial policy, according to people familiar with the matter. Ding Xuexiang, Xi’s chief of staff, is set to become the head of the entity, one of the people said, asking not to be identified discussing a private matter.
He Lifeng — who is expected to replace Liu He as China’s vice premier responsible for economic policy in a government reshuffle next month — is also being considered for the role of party secretary at the People’s Bank of China, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The appointment and potential overhaul of China’s financial regulatory regime would put decision-making over key economic policies in fewer hands and centralize it under Xi, while also highlighting the strategic importance of China’s US$60 trillion financial sector. A vice premier holding a senior position at the PBOC would also elevate its role in financial regulation.
Xi has consolidated his power since taking control in 2012, stacking the party’s leadership with loyalists. He secured a precedent-breaking third term in power at the party’s congress in October last year.
“There’s no doubt that He Lifeng has a much, much closer personal relationship to Xi than” current PBOC party chief Guo Shuqing, said Christopher Beddor, deputy China research director at Gavekal Dragonomics. “If he’s ultimately appointed to replace Guo, markets will probably view that as Xi gaining somewhat more direct oversight of the central bank.”
The appointments have yet to be finalized, and plenty could still shuffle around ahead of the National People’s Congress next month. It’s at that key political event that China’s top legislature confirms a slate of ministerial appointments, including the PBOC governor. No nominees have been formally announced.
If He, 68, is named as PBOC party secretary, it would be the first time since the 1990s that a vice premier responsible for economic policy would also have a senior role at the bank.
The last vice premier who also took a top PBOC post was Zhu Rongji, a highly-regarded leader known for his tough and efficient reform style. He became the PBOC’s governor between 1993 and 1995 to address the country’s worst inflation on record — it reached 24 percent in 1994 — and misconduct in the financial system.
The Central Financial Work Commission was first established in 1998, a move that was intended to ensure officials at various levels stuck to the party’s guidelines and policies in a so-called vertical management system. Then-Vice Premier Wen Jiabao served as the commission’s first chief.
The commission was dissolved in 2003 as part of a broad reorganization of government agencies that also saw the establishment of China’s banking regulator.
Veteran banker Zhu Hexin, currently chairman of state-owned financial conglomerate Citic Group Corp., is being considered as the next central bank governor, one of the people said. He would replace Yi Gang, who was widely expected to step down after approaching the usual retirement age for senior officials. Yi was dropped from a list of senior officials at the ruling party’s congress last year.
The WSJ first reported Zhu’s likely appointment and the reinstatement of the financial work committee.
The PBOC declined to comment when contacted by Bloomberg News.
In recent years, the party secretary and governor roles at the PBOC have been split. Under Guo Shuqing, the current PBOC party secretary who is expected to retire, the focus of his role has been on financial risk matters. Yi has been responsible for monetary policy implementation.
Economists said the changes at the PBOC may not signal a major shift in monetary policy, although the central bank’s approach could be slightly less hawkish.
“It’s really hard to imagine just about any successor who would be as hawkish on monetary policy and banking regulation as Guo Shuqing,” said Gavekal’s Beddor. He Lifeng has spent most of his career in local governments, and advocated for infrastructure-building. That means “he might not bring the same level of vigilance about the dangers of debt as Guo Shuqing or Liu He,” Beddor said.
Ding Shuang, chief economist for Greater China and North Asia at Standard Chartered Plc, said monetary policy “will likely continue on the reform direction that has already been set, and won’t be subject to a completely new thinking or any dramatic change.”
He Lifeng, who heads China’s state planning agency, is a close confidant of Xi, accompanying the president on several official trips in recent years. The pair have known each other since the 1980s.
The appointments of Zhu and He at the PBOC would be a departure from the academic and international credentials of the top two officials at the central bank. Zhu spent most of his career in China’s state-owned banking system, serving as a PBOC vice governor before becoming chairman at Citic in 2020. Under his watch, Citic played a major role in rescuing the troubled bad-debt manager China Huarong Asset Management Co.
He Lifeng has a doctorate in economics but is not known as a theorist, and has spent almost his entire career as a government official. He is expected to replace Liu He, who is widely known in international circles after leading China’s negotiating team in acrimonious trade talks with the US under former President Donald Trump, which resulted in a trade deal in early 2020.
Liu, China’s top economic official for the past decade, will step down from his current post but is expected to continue to play a role in US-China relations, the WSJ reported.