Liu He’s arrival in Washington this week has, once again, put the Harvard-educated Chinese technocrat back in the spotlight that he has enjoyed frequently since his rise to China’s highest political body last year.
President Xi Jinping’s top economic adviser will spend four days in the US for trade talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, his second visit this year. An earlier round of talks this month in Beijing ended in discord.
The outlook for avoiding a costly trade war between the world’s two biggest economies looked grim after those engagements failed to make progress, but brightened after President Donald Trump’s shock reversal of a ban on China’s ZTE Corp accessing American technology. Beijing praised the switch.
In addition to Mnuchin, Liu will meet with lawmakers, the Commerce Department, and the Trade Representative’s office, according to US Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue, who added that there’s a “high probability” Liu will also meet with Trump.
“He’s going there to understand,” Donohue told reporters at a briefing on Tuesday in Beijing after meeting with Liu earlier this week. “He’s a very, very smart economist, and I’m sure he’s looking to understand not only where everybody is, but also at the best way to resolve this. I was impressed by how prepared he was.”
Two days of meetings earlier this month ended with little to show except an agreement to keep talking, with China’s state media acknowledging major disagreements on some issues. Heading into the talks, both sides outlined a series of tough demands, with the US focused on reducing a deficit in goods that reached a record $375bn last year.
Liu, who got appointed to the 25-member Politburo in October, has general oversight of economic policy in Xi’s cabinet. Prior to his most recent trade brief, he had been working to steer the economy toward a more sustainable track as China seeks to both open up its domestic markets and rein in years of rampant borrowing.
A member of Xi’s inner circle, Liu long helped guide economic policy as director of the Central Leading Group for Financial and Economic Affairs. He has also been Vice-Chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, the government’s top economic planning body.
Known for guiding policy from behind-the-scenes, the 66-year-old Cultural Revolution survivor took the baton from Vice Premier Ma Kai.
However, as China’s point person for handling trade relations with the US, Liu commands more power than his predecessor did.
A former soldier and factory worker who was sent to China’s northeast during the 1966-76 political upheaval, Liu helped draft the five-year plans that underpinned the economy. He spent much of his career in the State Planning Commission, the predecessor of the NDRC that formerly set prices for everything from bicycles to grain.