Since he took over as the party chief in Guangdong in 2007, Mr. Wang (57) has carefully crafted an image of a progressive leader and champion of political reforms in the predominantly conservative Chinese leadership.

Wang Yang, on Friday morning, nonchalantly strolled into the Guangdong Hall, an ostentatiously decorated meeting room in the heart of the Great Hall of the People – the Chinese Parliament building.

Mr. Wang, the Communist Party of China (CPC) chief in the prosperous southern province of Guangdong, appeared to ignore the group of reporters and the flashing lenses, as he crossed his legs, put on a pair of reading glasses and unfolded a crisp copy of the Nanfang Daily.

The Guangzhou-based daily is known in China as a rare muckraking newspaper, famous for its fearless investigative journalism. Its stories have led to the sacking of corrupt officials, but have also landed its Editors in frequent trouble with the authorities. By appearing to endorse the newspaper in public, Mr. Wang — a member of the party’s 24-member Politburo — looked to be reminding the Chinese media of his liberal persuasions.

Since he took over as the party chief in Guangdong in 2007, Mr. Wang (57) has carefully crafted an image of a progressive leader and champion of political reforms in the predominantly conservative Chinese leadership.

His handling of protests last year in the village of Wukan, where thousands of farmers threw out the local CPC leadership after their land had been seized, burnished his liberal credentials. Just as the county government had laid siege to the village with squads of riot police, Mr. Wang sent in his deputy to reach a settlement with the villagers. Wukan, this year, held for the first time transparent and free elections, leading to scholars and media — some with Mr. Wang’s tacit encouragement — hailing a new “Wukan model” of grassroots democracy.

Today, Mr. Wang is widely considered as the most progressive face of the next generation of the Chinese leadership, which will come to power when the on-going Party Congress concludes on November 14.

Yet over the past year, Chinese analysts and journalists say the recent course of his career has starkly underscored the limits of reform tolerated by the Chinese political system. Mr. Wang has quietly tightened government controls in his province, reining in media outlets and non-governmental organisations that were earlier given unprecedented leeway.

In August, the Guangdong government appointed a propaganda official as a new party head for the Nanfang Daily — the newspaper he held up on Friday — to tighten control. Journalists in the newspaper say they have since had to withhold publishing sensitive stories, and refrain from carrying any reports that would cast Mr. Wang in a negative light.

“Wang Yang has spoken a lot about political reforms,” one journalist told The Hindu. “But on the ground, the situation is very different”. Mr. Wang’s supporters, however, say the restrictions on the media were imposed by conservatives in the provincial government who were opposing his calls for openness.

Shift in stance

Days after the Wukan incident, Mr. Wang, in an interview with a paper of the Nanfang Group, said the protests in the village were an “inevitable” outcome of conflicts caused by China’s development model. He has also stressed the need for political reforms to keep pace with economic reforms.

His frank assessments — a marked contrast from the usual reflexive response of party officials blaming instability on bad elements — were hailed by pro-reform media outlets.

But in the months since, Mr. Wang has become far more cautious on his pronouncements.

One scholar with party ties said one reason was that his unorthodox views had damaged his career prospects in a system that stresses “political discipline”, despite his close links to CPC General Secretary Hu Jintao from his time in the Communist Youth League.

After the purge of former Politburo member Bo Xilai, who was seen as breaking unwritten party rules of keeping a low profile by promoting a Leftist “Chongqing model”, the party has stressed the need for officials to follow the lead of the central government and discouraged internal debates. Mr. Wang has been seen by some as a Bo Xilai on the liberal Right, promoting a “Guangdong model” of economic and political liberalisation.

Until recently, he was a frontrunner for a seat on the next Politburo Standing Committee — the elite inner circle that is the party’s highest authority — which is likely to be unveiled on November 15. The latest list of seven leaders, according to recent reports, did not include Mr. Wang’s name.

At the very least, he is almost certain to be inducted into the top body five years later. Likely candidates for the next Standing Committee, such as the current Chongqing Party Secretary Zhang Dejiang and the Tianjin Party Chief Zhang Gaoli, are a decade older than Mr. Wang and will retire in 2017.

Mr. Wang’s prospects depend on whether he reins in his unorthodox style.

The new cautious Wang Yang was on display on Friday. Asked about the “Wukan model”, he said, “Every party member, including me, is a reformer”. When pressed to speak of his views on political reform, Mr. Wang replied, “If you read General Secretary Hu Jintao’s speech from yesterday [at the opening of the congress], you will have all your questions answered”. And with that, he left the room.

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