Deep conviction — such was the impression left with me by the former chairman of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) Li Rongrong (李荣融) when I first met him back in 2003. From the word go, we have had many interesting and insightful discussions. His mind never stops.
There was no mistake about it — Chairman Li had a clear sense of mission and expended every ounce of his energy on addressing what was gradually understood by many to be a very complex and challenging, if not impossible task. It was not just about identifying new roles such as the notion of "shareholder" or "board of directors" but also defining a new relationship between the state and the state-owned enterprises (SOEs). It included the need to introduce the appropriate stewardship and corporate governance structure across the hundreds of thousands of SOEs, those held centrally by SASAC and the rest under the provincial and city SASACs. It also extended to the complicated and unpopular task of restructuring and consolidating SOEs. It could only be the strength of his resolve and perseverance that made all this possible; despite the high status it enjoyed by reporting directly to the State Council, the SASAC surely faced a tremendous amount of resistance from existing SOEs and carried the burden of job losses and social implications.
Chairman Li went about his tasks in a most humble and sure-footed way — throughout the many detailed discussions that I had with him sharing Temasek Holdings’ experiences and lessons, he never once nodded in familiarity. Instead, he was always dutifully taking notes and motivating his team members into applying the lessons learned to their specific circumstances. After all, China has a scale of SOEs that is globally unmatched, in terms of sheer numbers and the proportion of the economy that they account for, even to this day.
I have learnt much from Chairman Li — the ability to prioritise tasks, to provide a local context to stewarding SOEs and to be patient. For example, he recognised very early on, the need to ensure a sustainable pipeline of talent for the SOEs as a fundamental underpinning. There was also the wage-productivity nexus that had to be tracked and for the gap perhaps to be narrowed over time for top management in certain SOEs. This was no small hiccup as the public sector and the SOEs shared a common talent pool then. Chairman Li was able to take the strategic view but over a longer period. Years after I left Temasek, we continued to discuss these challenges whenever we met.
With his laser-sharp focus on his mission objectives and steely resolve, Chairman Li has contributed much to the challenging task of prescribing, virtually from scratch, an effective stewardship and corporate governance framework for China’s SOEs. His legacy is there for future generations to continue the hard work of refining the framework and principles according to the changing circumstances.
Li Rongrong was born in Jiangsu Province, Suzhou City in 1944, and graduated from the chemical engineering faculty of Tianjin University in 1968. After graduation, he worked at an oil pump and nozzle factory and eventually became the factory's director in the early 80s. In December 1983, he joined the Communist Party of China (CPC).
Since 1986, he served as vice-director of Wuxi, Jiangsu's Economic Committee, director of the Light Industry Bureau, and director of the Planning Committee. He was also deputy director of the Jiangsu Provincial Planning and Economic Committee. From 1998 to 1999, he was vice-minister of the State Development Planning Commission.
From 2003 to 2010, he served as the director of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission. One of the first things he did when he took office was to revisit Singapore's Temasek Holdings. He had once praised Temasek Holdings for its comprehensive corporate governance model and its success in separating government and enterprise. He also drew inspiration from the company in shaping China's enterprise reform.
Since October 2010, he served as Vice Chairman, 11th CPPCC Economic Committee. He was a pivotal figure in the expansion and strengthening of central state-owned enterprises. According to statistics tabulated by the Chinese media, over Li's seven years of service at the SASAC, the total assets of central state-owned enterprises rose from 7 trillion to 21 trillion RMB.
Li was also a member of the 16th and 17th CPC Central Committee.
On the 25th Anniversary of Singapore-China’s diplomatic relations, Li was the recipient of the Business China Excellence Award 2015. He was recognised for his contributions towards Singapore-China relations during his tenure as Chairman of China's SASAC. Li was highly lauded for his leadership, for adapting and promoting Singapore’s best practices in corporate governance, and integrating these practices with China’s realities. In February this year, as vice-chairman of the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges, Li joined the Business China Awards judging panel, becoming one of only two former Chinese top officials to sit on this panel.
Li passed away in Beijing on 21 December due to lymphoma. He was 75.