Zhang Gaoli is currently the party secretary of Tianjin province, a post he has held since March 2007, and a member of the 16th and 17th Central Committees. He was born in 1946 in Jinjiang City, Fujian Province, and joined the party in 1973. He received a degree in statistics from Xiamen University in 1970, where he met his future wife and mother of his daughter.
Following graduation Zhang spent the next 15 years at the Guangdong Maoming Petroleum Company, ultimately becoming manager in 1984. The following year he became Director of the Guangdong Provincial Economic Commission, and was promoted to Deputy Governor of Guangdong Province in 1988. Prior to becoming party secretary of Tianjin, Zhang was the secretary and governor of Shandong province, where he championed administrative reforms to attract more foreign investment.
As Tianjin party secretary he has presided over the impressive growth of Binhai New Area, one of the special economic zones where the CCP experiments with reform. He has spoken out strongly in favor of deepening reforms, saying in a speech in August of last year that “Tianjin owes its development and change to reform and opening up. Tianjin must unswervingly rely on reform and opening up for its future development.” Still, many perceive Tianjin under Zhang as pursuing the same model of growth that many argue is unsustainable. As the Financial Times dryly summed up Zhang’s tenure in Tianjin, he “racked up huge debts and built scores of offices, homes, and highways that now stand eerily empty.”
Zhang is considered to be a protégé of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, and was seen as one of the lower-level officials jockeying for a spot on the Politburo Standing Committee. Jiang’s much noted intervention in the leadership transition was almost certainly instrumental in propelling Zhang to the body.
From a foreign policy standpoint, Zhang has appeared to draw on his experience in the oil industry in leading Chinese delegations to the Middle East in November 2010 and September 2011, during which time he visited countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. In June of this year he also led a Chinese delegation to four countries in Latin America including Costa Rica, which Tianjin has an energy agreement with. He has been actively involved with numerous countries in South and Southeast Asia over the years, and appears to be well acquainted with Europe, having visited Ireland on his way to the Middle East, and met with a number of European leaders during the closing ceremony of the second China-Europe High-Level Political Parties Forum, which was held in Tianjin earlier in the year. Addressing the China-EU forum, Zhang called for “promoting pragmatic cooperation” between the two sides, and noted that “Europe is Tianjin’s important partner for cooperation. We must… learn from and borrow the development experiences of European countries, expand exchanges and cooperation in various areas.”