He Lifeng: China’s economy tsar made director of key party commission

By Joe Cash

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s economy tsar He Lifeng has been appointed director of a key ruling Communist Party economic body, matching his high-profile predecessor Liu He with a particularly powerful portfolio covering economic policy, the financial sector and trade ties with Washington.

He, who had previously headed the state planning agency, became one of China’s four vice premiers in March when he replaced Liu He, who retired.

He has now also replaced Liu as director of the office of the Central Finance and Economic Affairs Commission, a party body headed by President Xi Jinping.

State media for the first time referred to He by his latest title in a readout of his meeting with a visiting French official on Sunday.

Though regarded as a confidant of President Xi, He’s ascent has surprised some analysts, who had expected Premier Li Qiang, former Shanghai party secretary, to take a bigger role in economic affairs.

Since taking over the economic portfolio, He has met with U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis, and last week accompanied Xi on his first known visit to China’s central bank.

“He Lifeng is in the post to execute Xi’s ideas but not to question him, as Liu He could,” said an advisor who had sometimes sat in on briefings with both He and Liu, and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The advisor also confirmed He does not speak English, unlike Liu, who studied economics at Harvard and was popular among U.S. officials because they could more easily converse with him.

Analysts also expect He will be named head of a new and even higher ranking party economic watchdog, once Xi revives the Central Financial Work Commission, which was was disbanded in 2003, having been set up in 1998 to build a role for the party within the central bank and financial regulators.

The world’s second-largest economy grew faster than expected in the third quarter, though it is suffering from a domestic property crisis, high youth unemployment, depressed private sector confidence, and a slowdown in global growth.

Policymakers have unveiled a raft of measures in recent weeks, but their ability to spur growth is constrained by fears over debt risks and a fragile yuan.

He could emerge as head of the resurrected Central Financial Work Commission, when state leaders, regulators and top bankers gather for a quinquennial, closed-door national financial work conference.

That meeting, which could set medium-term priorities for the broad financial industry, will take place in Beijing this week, Bloomberg News reported.

(This story has been refiled to change the characterization of role in paragraph 1)

(Reporting by Joe Cash; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)