Chen Min’er kept the economy of Guizhou expanding at double-digit annual rates when he was party chief of the mountainous province © FT montage; STR/AFP/Getty
After China’s President Xi Jinping was installed as head of the ruling Communist party at a congress five years ago, he signalled that the country was entering a “new normal” of single-digit economic growth. But one province of 34m people did not seem to receive the memo.
Giant infrastructure investments — thousands of kilometres of motorways, hundreds of kilometres of high-speed rail and two of the world’s tallest bridges — kept the economy of mountainous Guizhou expanding at double-digit annual rates.
Now Chen Min’er (pronounced Min-ar), the province’s former top official who oversaw that growth and an accompanying rise in local government debt, has a chance of reaching the highest echelon of power at a Communist party congress this week, according to analysts.
Mr Chen, 57, is a decade younger than the top leadership who generally retire at 68, increasing speculation that he is being groomed by Mr Xi to succeed him as party chief.
The pair worked together for five years when Mr Xi was the party chief of the eastern province of Zhejiang and Mr Chen was propaganda chief, the closest thing in China to being an official spin-doctor.
Mr Chen ascended rapidly under Mr Xi, becoming governor of Guizhou in 2013, before being made head of the megacity of Chongqing this summer. A graft investigation deposed the city’s previous chief, a rising star seen as an ally of Mr Xi’s political rivals.
His Chongqing posting guarantees that Mr Chen will be elevated to the 25-member politburo at the congress but some expect he will follow a trail blazed by Mr Xi in 2007 and jump straight into the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, in effect the country’s cabinet.
Mr Chen is the “most trusted of Xi’s protégés”, according to Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute. “I would expect that what Xi is trying to do is go get him all the way to the standing committee,” he added. “Its somewhat like [Vladimir] Putin grooming [Dmitry] Medvedev.”
In Cambodia-sized Guizhou, one of China’s poorest provinces where per capita GDP is about $5,000. Mr Chen adhered to the Communist party’s playbook, expanding investment to fuel urbanisation and growth, and government debt.
After Mr Chen moved to Guizhou, it more than doubled the length of its motorway network to 5,100km, topping Britain’s 3,500km. He has vowed that the province will have 10,000km by 2020, a greater length than France.
Engineering feats include the Duge suspension bridge completed last year, whose 720m span soars 565m above a swirling river gorge. The province added 700km of high-speed rail lines, and the world’s largest radio telescope.
Gross capital formation, a general measure of investment, has accounted for more than 60 per cent of Guizhou’s GDP every year since 2012, compared with a national average of about 45 per cent.
That has added to the province’s local government debt pile, which was about Rmb875bn in 2015, or 83 per cent of provincial GDP, well above the national average that year of 40 per cent.
It is hard to tell how many of Guizhou’s projects will pay off.
The Yachi river bridge, also completed last year, ranks as the world’s fourth highest and the centrepiece of a highway linking the provincial capital Guiyang to the city of Bijie, but villagers living a few kilometres away said they had seen little benefit.
For decades, workers poured out of the province to China’s prosperous east coast but there is now flow in the opposite direction, especially in Guiyang, where a maze of highway overpasses takes drivers past fields of high-rise residential developments and a financial district resembling Manhattan.
Shopkeepers from Zhejiang have set up convenience stores catering to the city’s growing white-collar class. “The economy is growing faster here than in the east, as the air quality is better,” said one of the store owners surnamed Zhou.
Mr Chen identified his priority as supporting Mr Xi’s signature programme to boost the incomes of the 70m people living below the poverty line by 2020, by vowing to relocate more than 1m people from remote villages to towns.
International corporations cultivated ties with Mr Chen as he pushed to make Guizhou a high-tech hub, with executives from Apple, IBM and Qualcomm, as well as the founders of technology giants Foxconn and Tencent, meeting him to promise investment.
Guizhou is the home of an Apple data centre and the province claims it generated $30bn in revenues from “big data” in 2015.
In public, Mr Chen has been effusive in praise of his patron. “We must maintain a high level of agreement on ideological matters with the party centre with Xi Jinping as general secretary and ensure that there is absolutely no variation from central policy,” he said in a speech last year.
While Mr Xi is widely seen as the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, he is not the sole arbiter of party promotions.
Analysts say the position achieved by Mr Chen will be read for a signs of his clout. “It’s a barometer. It will tell us how strong the resistance to Xi is,” said Mr Tsang.
Additional reporting by Gabriel Wildau