Jin Liqun: From the lines of Lord Byron to AIIB's corridors of power

Jin Liqun, president-designate at the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Photo by: Wu Zhiyi / World Bank

All eyes are on Jin Liqun, the man tasked with leading the establishment and operations of the newest development institution to date: the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Pitched by Chinese President Xi Jinping in October 2013, the Beijing-based institution has attracted its fair share of criticism and skepticism. With an announced capital of $100 billion, the bank is still arguably a step or two away from completion but bank operations, supported by 57 member nations, are expected to start by the end of the year. Even the consultations with stakeholders for the institution’s embattled safeguards draft — usually a multiyear process for other institutions like the World Bank — have been fast-tracked and will conclude this week to ensure that the projects can start rolling out on schedule, by the second quarter of next year.

Even the man from Jiangsu himself, in charge of launching a bank with the financial muscle to go toe-to-toe with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, admitted that “things moved very fast.”

Too fast? Speaking during the Asia Summit of the Milken Institute in Singapore two weeks ago, Jin seemed in good cheer despite the perceived rush in establishing the institution. With his disarming sense of humor and an impeccable command of the English language, the man with a passion for literature and global development took the opportunity to explain the whys, wherefores and what nexts for the AIIB.

Jin expects operations to be “lean” and that there should not be “any kind of bureaucracy” at the bank. “Go to the gym everyday,” he said. “MDBs should take [anticorruption] as one of the most important objectives because the shareholders are the governments and we have the taxpayers' money as our capital and we have a duty to make sure that not a single cent would be going to the wrong place.”

The AIIB chief’s tendency to exude rich and poetic lyricism to explain his views on development policies is perhaps a result of his academic background. Having graduated with a master’s degree in English in 1980, the former ADB vice president is also a scholar of English poetry, having translated many of the works of Lord Byron into his native Chinese. In addition to English, the former sovereign wealth fund chief is also known to have excellent proficiency of the French language.

Curtis Chin, who recalled his time with the AIIB chief as the former U.S. ambassador to the Manila-based institution, suggested that such eloquent rhetoric is now what forms part of the challenge that Jin will now face once the Beijing-based bank opens for business.

“Jin Liqun is a man of letters, from Shakespeare to Chaucer,” he told Devex. “His challenge now is to put meaning behind words of reassurance that have helped win over more than 50 nations to join the AIIB … It’s time to move now from talk to action.”

Getting to the top

Jin, despite his success as the head of the newest multilateral institution in town, took a gradual climb towards the top. Rumored to having been unable to finish his bachelor’s degree on account of China’s Cultural Revolution, he was eventually able to obtain his master’s degree, while getting a fellowship in the United States.

Intelligent and competent, he eventually landed top jobs in China’s finance ministry, the World Bank, the ADB, and the China International Capital Corp. Jin is also an adjunct professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University and Nankai University.

Ursula Schaefer-Preuss, former ADB vice president for knowledge management and sustainable development, shared that Jin — who was fondly called “VP Jin” during their two years working together — was both a charismatic leader and a profound thinker.

“He was really a good leader … taking complex issues in a very wise way. He was a strategic thinker, and always thought twice before coming to a conclusion,” she told Devex. “He’s an excellent team player. I think he has all the qualities you need for such a very demanding position, in an environment that is really different from classical development banks like the World Bank ... 50 years ago.”

Other ADB officials who worked previously under Jin agreed, saying he is an “open-minded guy” who would likely know “what was working and what was not” in ensuring the smooth launch of the Beijing-based AIIB.

Schaefer-Preuss fondly recounted to Devex how VP Jin enjoyed playing golf and going out with colleagues, often treating them to a cultural immersion of good Chinese food in Manila, while juggling operational improvement discussions at the bank including gender issues. But above all else, the current chair of the Global Water Partnership shared that during his days at ADB, Jin’s leadership qualities were undeniable.

“He was, at the time, the dean for the then four vice presidents … that means when former President Kuroda was not in town or away, he was acting president,” she explained. “We had started a more open-minded policy on [gender issues] and VP Jin was very supportive of that.”

Addressing the issues

The entry into force of the AIIB, together with the BRICS’ New Development Bank, has spurred a polarizing debate in the international community on the perceived need for the two new institutions, as well as the motives behind their establishment.

While some argue the need for both, with around $800 billion per year needed to plug the infrastructure investment gap in the Asia-Pacific region alone, others are firm in their belief that both banks — AIIB in particular — may be used as a political and economic tool by China to further its international standing and influence.

Chin believes that Jin would be at the center of it all, both as the “face of [AIIB] and that new institution’s challenge to the existing multilateral landscape.” His personality, Chin told Devex, would be under the world’s microscope to prove that AIIB will not — and never will — be a political and economic tool of China.

“Jin Liqun at the ADB always seemed to be the consummate professional … In my own interactions, I found him to be always well-spoken and prepared,” Chin shared. “One never felt that Jin’s agenda at the ADB was simply China’s agenda. Other Chinese officials placed at the ADB have been described — rightly or wrongly — as overly aggressively pushing Chinese companies for procurement awards.”

This will be an interesting subplot for a development personality who, in his final year at ADB, told his colleagues that he was “at the disposal of my government for whatever positions they want me to serve them.”

“I think he gained a lot of experience, which was necessary [for] the newer bank he’s now heading. You really have to have a very integral person, not only of professional experience but also with a very strong vision on where his country and the region should go,” Schaefer-Preuss shared, stressing that no matter the leader or institution, safeguards for the people and the environment should never be neglected.

But like many of the literary characters of Chaucer or Lord Byron, Jin — in the words of Chin — is a man of “contrasts and achievements.”

“Where some saw well-spoken remarks by Jin, others saw a bit of arrogance and their fears realized of a new institution that will indeed, despite the rhetoric, be ‘China’s’ institution,” Chin said.

“China’s track record at the ADB after Jin left included efforts to block projects in China’s territorial disputes with India, as well as preventing ADB staff to visit China to investigate allegations of non-compliance with ADB rules,” he explained. “[He] might have handled such issues with more finesse and diplomacy, but at the end of the day China called the shots. So too will that be the case at AIIB.”

To quote Lord Byron: “Truth is always strange, stranger than fiction.” But filtering truth from rhetoric, particularly in how intentions are announced and acted upon, is difficult. Only time will tell whether the man tasked with leading AIIB — and, in some respects, the next phases of the Asia-Pacific region’s development — will be up to the task of delivering on all the institution’s promises, while adhering to the highest standards.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.