BEIJING: The election of Chinese President Xi Jinping's trusted lieutenant Wang Qishan as vice president with life-long tenure could be problematic for the ruling Communist Party as he could transform a largely ceremonial position into a real seat of power, experts said.
Wang, who retired as the member of the ruling Communist Party of China's (CPC) powerful seven-member Standing Committee in October, is the first official to continue in power despite crossing the retirement age.
His election marks a formal return of the 69-year-old to the centre stage of Chinese politics. "He will become Xi's wingman and transform a largely ceremonial position into a real seat of power," political experts were quoted as saying by Hong Kong based South China Morning Post.
The vice-president position has been a largely symbolic role in past decades, but that will not satisfy Wang, who is widely respected for his decisiveness and efficiency, the daily said.
"He will not simply be playing a ceremonial role as some of his predecessors did, and will thus be able to play an important role on issues Xi decides to involve him in," said Dali Yang, a political scientist with the University of Chicago.
His name evokes fear across China as he headed Xi's anti-corruption drive which led to the punishment of over 1.5 million officials, including over 100 ministers and top Generals of the military.
Speculation was rife about his future since he was not assigned any role by the once-in-a-five-year congress of the CPC which endorsed a second term for Xi and elected a new Standing Committee in October last year.
Moreover, all top CPC officials including top leaders of the party followed an unwritten rule of 68 years and two terms as the retirement age as part of the collective leadership principle followed by the one-party state to avert a dictatorial rule emerging from ranks.
However, Xi broke the number of conventions followed by the party and leaders since he took over.
One such convention he disregarded was to not to prosecute retired leaders.
During Xi's first five-year tenure, Wang focussed his anti-corruption campaign against former security czar Zhou Yongkong, a powerful standing committee member under previous Hu Jintao regime and his family and supporters. Zhou is currently serving life sentence after admitting charges against him.
Wang's elevation today is regarded as yet another step to change the rules followed by CPC as now he would continue in power despite crossing the retirement age.
Like Xi, Wang will also not have any tenure as China's rubber-stamp parliament National People's Congress (NPC) on March 11 amended the constitution removing the two-term limit for the president and vice President.
"Having Wang, as vice-president without a senior party position, functioning as No 8 in the leadership and in charge of a major portfolio is problematic for a Leninist system, as the centrepiece of a Leninist system is the party," said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute.
"An ordinary party member outranking Politburo members will cause huge concern and discomfort among Politburo members, as well as the wider party establishment," he was quoted as saying by the Post.
But if Wang was asked by Xi to take on a particular portfolio, Tsang said it would be hard to see how the party's top leadership could block the move.
"The 'fear factor' will ensure that Xi will have his way and Wang will begrudgingly accepted for whatever role or roles Xi may assign to him," he said. Wang's anti-graft campaign may also comeback to bite Xi later, he said.
"Wang's crackdown is unlikely to be forgotten within the party establishment. It may come back to bite Xi at a later stage in the event that he should make a major policy mistake and the rest of the establishment should sense a serious weakness on his part," Tsang said.
"Much as Wang is genuinely one of the most able among China's top-level leaders, assigning him a senior portfolio against party rules and constitutional convention carries such a high implicit political price that it is very doubtful if this would be worth his while," he said.
"If Xi indeed ignores this, it shows how he is already putting himself in a Leninist strongman mode in how he exercises his leadership from this point onwards," he said.