China's Xi Looks to Ally to Fix U.S. Relations

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Xi Jinping

is turning to a trusted political ally who ran his potent anticorruption campaign to help manage the critical but fraught relationship with the U.S. as trade tensions escalate, according to officials familiar with the leadership’s thinking.

Wang Qishan,

who stepped down from the leadership in October after hitting an unofficial retirement age, is being considered by Mr. Xi for several roles, including as state vice president, the officials said.

On Monday, the 69-year-old Mr. Wang’s career as a senior official was extended when he was named a deputy to the national legislature, a rare position for an elder official after exiting the leadership.

Part of Mr. Wang’s charge, whether as vice president or as an adviser in some other capacity to Mr. Xi, would be to handle relations with the U.S., the officials said.

In recent months, Mr. Wang has met with former Treasury Secretary

Henry Paulson

and other U.S. business leaders he has known in more than two decades as a Communist Party insider. At one such meeting, just ahead of his retirement, Mr. Wang used what he dubbed an “old friend” session to pepper a visiting U.S. financier about President

Donald Trump,

according to people in attendance.

“Is Trump a rare phenomenon, or a trend?” asked Mr. Wang, these people said.

Mr. Wang is known as the “fireman” in China for his long career of handling emergencies and his enlistment on U.S. relations is a sign of how unsteady Beijing sees relations under Mr. Trump, said the officials familiar with the leadership’s thinking.

“Wang is tough,” one of the officials said. “You need someone like that to deal with the Americans.”

Under the “America First” banner, Mr. Trump and his aides are unrolling a tougher China policy to address what they call Beijing’s unfair trade practices.

Last week, the Trump administration fired a trade shot at China by levying steep tariffs on Chinese solar panels. The U.S. has set in motion several studies and proceedings that could lead to sanctions on China involving intellectual property and trade in steel and aluminum.

The Chinese government’s information office didn’t respond to a request for comment on Mr. Wang. Mr. Xi oversaw a shuffle of top Communist Party posts in October, and China’s legislature is slated to approve top government appointments in March.

For the past five years Mr. Wang ran the wide-ranging, politically treacherous antigraft crackdown that helped Mr. Xi cement his power.

The vice presidency, though a ceremonial position, would give Mr. Wang a title, a staff and a justification for engaging with foreigners, officials and China politics experts said.

Mr. Wang has forged relations with many influential Americans since the late 1990s, when he was put in charge of handling China’s largest bankruptcy, facing down angry foreign creditors. A decade later, he led annual economic talks with the U.S., opposite then-Treasury Secretary

Timothy Geithner.

When Wang Qishan was promoted to vice-premier in charge of economic relations in 2008, he was credited by U.S. officials with convincing senior Chinese leaders to let the yuan start to float somewhat, beginning in June 2010, a longtime U.S. aim.

“When Wang Qishan stepped down as vice premier, he told his American counterparts that he was always available to meet informally—he told them that if they removed their neckties, ispo facto, that made the meeting unofficial and he would be delighted to see them as an old friend,” said Daniel Russel, who served as the top State Department Asia official during President

Barack Obama’s

second term, and said he heard about that offer directly from Mr. Wang.

Mr. Russel, now a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said that Mr. Wang through the fall of 2017 met with a number of “old friends” who had been top U.S. government officials.

“There’s a trail of breadcrumbs that leads toward the conclusion that Wang Qishan is someone in whom the core leadership has faith, on whom they rely, both for insight into, and practical dealings with, Americans,” he said.

Chinese officials in recent weeks have been steering Americans influential on China issues to see Mr. Wang when they travel to Beijing.

“It was clear from conversations with various Chinese officials that Wang Qishan will continue to have a very important role and Xi Jinping’s ear on matters’ involving U.S.-China relations and other global issues,” said Myron Brilliant, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s executive vice president, who recently returned from a trip to China where he met senior officials, though not Mr. Wang.

Other senior officials involved in dealing with Americans would include

Hu Chunhua,

who is expected to be named vice premier overseeing trade, and Liu He, Mr. Xi’s top economic aide, who is slated to become the vice premier in charge of finance and state-owned enterprises.

Yang Jiechi,

State Councilor in charge of foreign policy, and Foreign Minister

Wang Yi

are also expected to continue to be involved in foreign affairs.

The post he was given on Monday allows him to take part in deliberations of the legislature, but doesn’t signify any particular authority.

Trump administration officials said they hope the potential appointment of Mr. Wang and other officials they consider economic reformers would give a push to liberalization efforts in China.

But they said they are looking to China to make substantial changes in policy, and believe past administrations were too willing to accept promises and incremental changes to keep relations on an even keel.

Chinese officials have told visiting Americans that they are surprised at the U.S.’s tougher stance after an amicable, pomp-filled summit between Messrs. Trump and Xi in Beijing in November. During recent meetings between Mr. Xi’s economic deputies and U.S. officials, the two sides couldn’t agree on what to talk about, according to people involved in the discussions.

While U.S. officials wanted to focus on specific ways U.S. companies can gain better access to the Chinese market, the Chinese side kept stressing the need to put in place a “mechanism,” saying that would help both sides to move in the same direction, these people said.

“The U.S. is not interested in mechanisms,” said a person involved in the discussions. “Trump wants major breakthroughs.”

For instance, Beijing’s recent pledge to let foreign securities firms own 51% of their Chinese ventures is seen as falling well short of the U.S. demands for no cap on ownership.

“The asking price is too high,” said a Chinese official, referring to the U.S. requests.

Chinese officials are analyzing what the costs would be of a trade war with the U.S., according to people familiar with the matter. The officials are pressuring American businesses to warn Washington against moving in that direction, and putting in place tit-for-tat measures to counter possible U.S. actions.

Finance Minister

Xiao Jie

is planning to meet with U.S. officials next month with a goal of resuming a dialogue on trade and economic issues that stalled last summer, according to people familiar with the matter.

Treasury officials said they would talk—but administration officials have said they are looking more toward sanctions than negotiations.

“We’re not at a stage where we could restart negotiations,” said U.S. Treasury undersecretary

David Malpass.

“The challenge from China is continuing to be problematic in terms of their trade policies, state-owned enterprise and investment policies.”

Write to Lingling Wei at and Bob Davis at

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