Steve Bannon flew to Beijing last week for a secret meeting with the second most powerful Chinese Communist party official, less than a month after the former chief White House strategist declared that America was at “economic war with China”.
According to one person in China familiar with the situation, Mr Bannon travelled to Beijing to meet Wang Qishan, the head of the Chinese Communist party’s anti-corruption campaign.
The meeting occurred at Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound, after Mr Bannon had visited Hong Kong to give a closed-door speech at a big investor conference hosted by CLSA, a Chinese state-owned brokerage and investment group.
“The Chinese reached out to Bannon before his Hong Kong speech because they wanted to ask him about economic nationalism and populist movements which was the subject of his speech,” said a second person familiar with the situation.
Mr Wang, who is seen as the second most powerful person in China after President Xi Jinping, arranged through an intermediary for a 90-minute meeting after learning that Mr Bannon was speaking on the topic, according to the second person, who stressed there was no connection to President Donald Trump’s upcoming visit to China.
During the final months of the US election, Mr Bannon ran Mr Trump’s presidential campaign and was widely credited with helping the candidate stay the course with the populist message that catapulted him to the White House. He served as chief White House strategist until August, when he was ousted as part of a reorganisation that occurred after Mr Trump hired John Kelly, a retired general, as his new chief of staff.
After leaving the White House, Mr Bannon returned to head Breitbart News, the rightwing website that he ran before joining the Trump campaign.
In Hong Kong, Mr Bannon said he had left the White House to be Mr Trump’s “wingman” and to campaign on behalf of congressional candidates who would back the president’s “America first” agenda.
Mr Bannon has long argued that the US needs to take a tougher economic stance against China, which he argues is responsible for the hollowing out of manufacturing jobs in the US.
In the early months of the Trump administration, Mr Bannon was widely seen as being the intellectual force behind many of Mr Trump’s moves, earning himself a Time magazine cover with the headline “The Great Manipulator”.
After Mr Trump won the election, China frequently approached Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and top aide, to help navigate the US-China relationship. But Mr Kushner has taken much less of a role in recent months. While Rex Tillerson, secretary of state, has been leading efforts to get Beijing to put pressure on North Korea, some Chinese experts have expressed concern that the administration does not have a clear point person to handle the relationship with China.
Wilbur Ross, the US commerce secretary who worked closely with Mr Bannon to press for tougher trade measures against China, will travel to Beijing this week to pave the way for Mr Trump’s November summit with Mr Xi. The trip comes as the US struggles to engineer some of the measures against China that Mr Trump talked about during the campaign and after his election. Efforts to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium imports have stalled amid concerns about the effect on the US economy.
In July, Mr Ross asked Mr Trump to consider a deal on reducing Chinese steel overcapacity that he had crafted with Wang Yang, a Chinese vice-premier. But Mr Trump rejected the offer and dismissed a second improved version, telling his commerce secretary that he wanted to find ways to impose tariffs on Chinese goods.
The secret meeting between Mr Bannon and Mr Wang will stoke speculation that the Chinese anti-graft tsar, who has purged hundreds of senior government officials and military officers for corruption in recent years, may continue to work closely with Mr Xi during his second term in office.
Under recent precedent, Mr Wang, who turned 69 in July, would be expected to step down from the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist party’s most powerful body. But his many admirers argue that as China’s most knowledgeable and experienced financial technocrat, he should stay on to help Mr Xi force through a series of stalled financial and economic reforms.
Before his appointment as head of the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Mr Wang was Beijing’s point man for Sino-US relations and has played a pivotal role in most of China’s key financial reforms over the past 20 years.
Though he no longer has an official government position, Mr Wang has continued to meet regularly with international figures such as former US Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde and the hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio. Earlier this week Mr Wang also held an unexpected meeting in Beijing with Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong.
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