Reception for Chinese National Day in Beijing
Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Chairman Wang Yang sings the national anthem at a reception at the Great Hall of the People on the eve of the Chinese National Day in Beijing, China September 30, 2022. Reuters

When Wang Yang was Chinese Communist Party boss of economic powerhouse Guangdong province, the man now considered a top contender to be China's next premier displayed a liberal streak that has been less visible since Xi Jinping took power.

During his time in Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong, Wang made his mark by pushing an upgrade of rusting industries and touting socially inclusive policies.

In a stand-off over land grabs in the village of Wukan in late 2011, Wang dismissed corrupt officials and allowed protest leaders to contest grassroots elections the following spring, winning international plaudits.

Some of those liberal-minded moves in Guangdong, however, were later scaled back or scrapped under Wang's watch, with further curbs imposed on the media and civil society including labour groups after Xi became leader a decade ago and set China on an increasingly authoritarian path.

Wang, 67, is considered to be among the top candidates to be named to succeed Li Keqiang when Li leaves his post in March as overseer of the world's second-largest economy.

While the premiership is No.2 in the leadership hierarchy, it is seen to have become less influential as Xi has consolidated his own power and imposed a tighter state grip over economic management. Xi is expected to break with precedent by securing a third five-year leadership term at the Communist Party congress that begins on Oct. 16.

A self-made man who worked at a food factory in his teens to support his single mother and family, Wang later reportedly caught the eye of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and forged close ties with former president Hu Jintao.

In person, according to some who have met him, Wang is self-confident and charismatic. He has preferred to leave his hair grey instead of dyeing it jet black like other leaders.

At an informal gathering with journalists in Guangzhou more than a decade ago, Wang made unscripted, occasionally humorous remarks on a wide range of topics. It was a style that contrasts with the stiffer public persona typically adopted by top party leaders, who nowadays rarely if ever interact with foreign media.

During a meeting with then U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in 2013, Wang cracked a joke on gay marriage, and said China and the United States couldn't afford to divorce like media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his then-wife, the China-born Wendi Deng, as the price would be "too high".

"He's undoubtedly the most liberal of the entire Politburo," Willy Lam, a China expert and adjunct professor at Hong Kong's Chinese University, told Reuters.

Wang was passed over for promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2012, but as vice premier he helped oversee China's external economic relations including with the United States.

In 2017, he was promoted to the party's highest ruling body, where he ranks fourth among the seven members. He is also chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a political advisory body.


Like Li Keqiang and Vice Premier Hu Chunhua - another premiership contender - Wang has ties to the Communist Youth League, a faction seen to be a rival to Xi's.

However, some party-watchers argue Wang would have gained Xi's trust after having kept a low profile and serving loyally alongside him on the standing committee over the past five years.

In recent years under Xi, Wang has seemingly tempered his reformist tendencies, echoing the party's tough line on sensitive political issues including Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet, while expressing support for Xi.

As the head of the CPPCC, Wang led a policy group on China's western region of Xinjiang, where up to a million ethnic Muslims were detained in mass camps.

Before a visit to Xinjiang in May by the United Nations' High Commissioner for Human Rights that was widely criticised by rights groups and western governments, Wang said Muslim ethnic groups there were now living with "happiness and security", according to the official Xinhua news agency.