Jin Liqun
© James Ferguson

The Qingfeng fast-food chain is the most famous place to buy steamed buns in China. In late 2013, the country’s president Xi Jinping visited an unassuming branch in central Beijing, a well-publicised yet “surprise” appearance that portrayed him as a man of the people and echoed the ancient practice of Chinese emperors leaving the Forbidden City in disguise to mingle with their subjects.

The visit was heavy on symbolism: the name of the restaurant is a homophone for “clear wind”, which evokes the image of an honest government official who never takes bribes; the translucent fatty pork and green chives inside the dumplings are described as yi qing er bai, a Chinese idiom for a person of visible integrity.

So when I suggested to Jin Liqun, the president of the newly-launched Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), China’s answer to the World Bank, that we should follow Xi’s example and have our lunch here, he was delighted by the idea. “In the current atmosphere of austerity it is important we don’t eat somewhere very lavish,” he told me. “We can order the same dishes as President Xi!”

Now I’m standing in line at the restaurant with this jocular 66-year-old, whom western diplomats refer to as Beijing’s chief “barbarian handler”, which means that his job is to deal with foreigners.

Jin, it turns out, finds the term offensive. “I take exception and issue with this description [which was first quoted in the Financial Times] — I’m not dealing with barbarians, I’m dealing with people in modern civilisations,” he says as we collect our “President’s set lunch”, consisting of six dumplings each, a dish of green vegetables and a steaming bowl of stir-fried pig’s liver and intestines.

In his crowning achievement to date, Jin is credited with convincing the UK and many other staunch American allies to ignore protests from Washington and join Beijing’s fledgling regional development bank. In fact, it was the UK that led the way in joining the bank over Washington’s protestations, prompting an angry Obama administration to tell the FT it was seriously worried about Britain’s “constant accommodation” of China.

For some it was a symbolic moment, when the global hegemon drew a red line in the sand and many of its closest allies jumped over it. Most analysts, too, believe it is a part of China’s bid to supplant the US-dominated postwar global power structure. Jin sees things differently, however. “We’re not trying to upend the international financial and economic order, even though it leaves much room for improvement,” he says.

Already, some of the bank’s member countries say privately that they have noticed a subtle shift in the way Jin and other Chinese officials speak about the bank’s mission — in terms that are noticeably more in line with Beijing’s strategic objectives.

“China is the largest shareholder of the bank but it is only one shareholder and I can tell you the bank will not do anything that is driven by politics, and will not interfere in political affairs,” Jin says. “Now some people are sceptical, particularly since I am a Chinese Communist party member, but let me ask you one question: If we really wanted to run this bank à la Chine, then why would we go to all this trouble [to convince western countries to join]?”

His point about how hard he and Beijing have worked to convince so many countries to join the AIIB is a good one, suggesting that China is seeking to insert itself into a peaceful and co-operative global order rather than overturn existing power structures. But it doesn’t really answer the question of whether China, and the party, with its strong authoritarian tendencies, will listen to other countries in the actual running of the bank.

I ask Jin to elaborate but he responds with a soundbite: “This is really an opportunity for China to show it can work with other countries and to [better] international practice — not just western practice — so people can be convinced China is a force for peace and prosperity in the world.”

We’ve shed our overcoats and we’re sitting at a Formica table in the back of the very crowded, very loud fast-food joint. A small child walks up and points at me, yelling “foreigner” to his parents as I dip my delicious dumplings in a small dish of chilli, mustard, garlic and vinegar mixed from the condiment pots on our table. I am the only non-Chinese person here.

Today Jin has ditched his usual sharp suit and tie and is wearing a sweater vest with a plain jacket and old worn shoes. He looks just like the English literature professor he says he once aspired to be and I wonder if perhaps I’m now a barbarian being “handled” — whether he has intentionally dressed down to portray himself as a humble scholar.

Apart from the black Audi with driver waiting for Jin outside, there are no other outward signs that this is one of the most powerful financial officials in the world. Nobody recognises him but that is not unusual, since China’s tightly controlled domestic media rarely focuses on any senior leaders below the Politburo Standing Committee level.

The Chinese broccoli stalks are pretty tasty and the hearty stir-fried offal is better than I expected. In another bit of linguistic symbolism, the words for fried pig liver, chao gan, sound a lot like the phrase for “fired cadre”, leading state media to infer that President Xi chose this dish to warn “pig-like” corrupt officials that their days were numbered.

“I don’t eat this very often because it has a lot of cholesterol, however a fair amount of cholesterol is good for your health, particularly for men,” Jin tells me authoritatively. “If you run out of cholesterol, your health will deteriorate, so don’t be afraid of this.”

This prompts him to note how his body was fortified as a young man doing hard labour in the countryside, which in turn triggers an hour-long conversation about the tumultuous historical events that shaped his personality and career.

Jin was born just two months before the communist victory in 1949. His father, an engineer in a flour mill in the southern Chinese city of Suzhou, impressed on his son the importance of study from a young age. At age 10 Jin started learning English and studying literature. But in 1966 his education was cut short by the mass mania of the Cultural Revolution, as Chairman Mao encouraged students and workers to rise up against their teachers and bosses in an orgy of rebellion and violence.

As a 17-year-old “Red Guard”, Jin travelled to Beijing to watch Mao address the enormous crowd of adoring youngsters in Tiananmen Square. The country descended into chaos and, by 1967, most schools and universities had been shut down. “I hated violence but I was a Red Guard simply because we believed we were protecting Chairman Mao. As soon as the violence broke out, as soon as the students started beating up teachers, I quit. [People like me] were called xiao yao pai, which means the ‘good-for-nothing guys’, because we did not have a clear political position.”

This turned out to be a fortuitous decision. When universities finally reopened in China a decade later, many of the students involved in violence, looting and vandalism were excluded from admission. “But I had a clean bill of political health so I had no problem being accepted as a graduate student in 1978. I was right to not get involved in that fanatical political upheaval,” Jin says. “I’m not bragging but I have always had very sharp political awareness.”

At the end of 1968, he was sent to the countryside to plant and harvest rice with the peasants. And for three years he lived in a 12 sq metre thatched shack. In the summer he would endure “rapacious” leeches and “back-breaking drudgery” while working from 4am until 10pm for two weeks at a time.

After work he locked himself in his shack to study according to a “very strict curriculum” he designed for himself. “People were very much puzzled and asked what was the point on working on books at night when you were truly dead tired,” he says. “But they never ever called me a ‘stinking intellectual’” — then a popular term of abuse — “because I worked with them all the time and only worked on my books at night or in the slack season.”

He credits his life-long love of Shakespeare to a volume including Othello, Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice that a former teacher gave him around this time. He volunteered to work the night shift at a village paper factory that made toilet paper. “I would always volunteer to do more of the night shifts than was necessary — it was far from the madding crowd and nobody would bother me and, more importantly, I was supplied with free kerosene and a lamp so I could read into the night.”

He spent three-quarters of his annual salary on a second-hand Webster’s English dictionary, a worn-out Remington typewriter and a short-wave transistor radio so he could listen to the 5pm news and radio plays in English via the BBC’s Far Eastern relay station.

“When I first tuned in to the BBC at night I found the lady was reading from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and I was intrigued particularly by how she put accents on some of the words — Mrs Danvers, Mr [de] Winter, something like that — I was so pleased because I actually had a copy of that book and that’s how I improved my English.” To this day his English bears strong traces of the standard BBC accent of the 1970s.

Thanks to his rigorous regimen as an autodidact, Jin was made a teacher in a local middle school and later gained admission to the Beijing Foreign Studies University when tertiary institutions reopened in 1978. He was 29 years old.

In 1980, his university offered him a position as professor of English literature but a more exciting opportunity came along — the chance to move to Washington, DC, and work as a representative of China at the World Bank. Until then, his only economic training was from reading Karl Marx’s Das Kapital; his arrival in a Howard Johnson hotel in the US was like “something out of Alice in Wonderland”, he says.

“In China at that time we could never have so many things even in our dreams.” He was amazed by the abundance, the highways, the beautiful unpopulated landscape and the fact you could pick up a telephone and dial almost anywhere.

Six years at the World Bank and six years at the Asian Development Bank (ADB), where he served as the first Chinese vice-president, make him one of the most internationally experienced senior officials in China, and this is reflected in the way he charms most western interlocutors.

“Jin is like no Chinese official I’ve ever met,” said one of the governors from the 57 member countries of the recently-inaugurated AIIB. “He’s so bright, well-connected and polished, and he has international contacts that nobody else in the Chinese bureaucracy can match.”

According to this person, the AIIB is full of recently-retired World Bank and IMF staffers, most of whom are not Chinese citizens and came to work at the fledgling AIIB on Jin’s personal invitation. But Jin’s ambitions for the bank go far beyond replicating the existing multilateral development institutions like the ADB and the World Bank. He believes these have strayed from their original mandate by focusing far too much on poverty alleviation while ignoring the lessons from developing countries like China.

“The Chinese experience illustrates that infrastructure investment paves the way for broad-based economic social development, and poverty alleviation comes as a natural consequence of that,” he says. “We want to create something new that combines the strong features of private companies with those of multilateral development banks.”

Jin has also coined a slogan to describe the way the new bank operates — he says it will be “lean, clean and green”. That means a bank with a small professional staff and non-resident board of governors (lean) that is not corrupt (clean) and cares about the environment (green).

For all the hype and symbolism surrounding the new Chinese bank, its ambitions still seem extremely modest. The ADB has estimated the infrastructure investment shortfall in developing Asia stands at $8tn in the decade to 2020 but Jin says the AIIB will ramp up operations only gradually, with plans to invest just $1.5-2bn in infrastructure this year, $3-5bn next year and around $10bn in 2018.

We’ve long since finished our food, although I notice he has barely touched the congealing liver and intestines that he had earlier encouraged me to eat.

Without expecting anything more than the official line, I ask whether he has any concerns about the Chinese economy. “China’s political leaders have vision, determination and guts,” he says. Both of us glance at the stir-fried intestines as he continues. “I’m not at all worried about the Chinese economic slowdown.”

Clearly he is more focused on his plans for the bank and for China’s investments outside its borders. For now, the AIIB’s offices take up 30,000 sq metres in a nondescript office tower in Beijing’s financial street but plans are already being drawn up to build a permanent headquarters in the Olympic Park near the Bird’s Nest stadium.

The city government has set aside 6.2ha of prime real estate and Jin tells me he envisions a building that will eventually house 6,000 employees. “We’re thinking in terms of centuries,” he says.

He has even picked out a 280-tonne piece of granite, hewn from the slopes of the sacred Mount Tai, that will sit on the new site in order to improve its feng shui and boost the bank’s fortunes.

“It’s not superstitious — just simply a good omen,” he says, perhaps mindful of the communist party’s strict attitude towards such philosophies. “You see, this bank will be as solid as a rock.”

Jamil Anderlini is the FT’s Asia editor

Illustration by James Ferguson

Letters in response to this story

Let’s hope AIIB’s granite is less controversial than EBRD’s marble / From Sarah Papineau

AIIB’s Jin is passionate about his profession / From Jaseem Ahmed

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