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China’s new head of government Li Qiang listens to Xi Jinping

CSheena’s new Premier Li Qiang is an enigma. He called private business the “golden calling card” of his home province. He boasted of the entrepreneurial audacity of his hometown and lashed out at officials for meddling in the market. He has scolded scholars for not being bold enough to criticize his work. But he is also a protégé of Xi Jinping, who has crushed dissent and caused a stir in the business world through his efforts to tighten the Communist Party’s grip on everything, especially the economy. On March 11th, the National People’s Congress approved the appointment of Mr. Li. Will this change the way China is governed?

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Xi Jinping’s reign of fear demands endless displays of loyalty from officials, making it harder than ever to predict the policy preferences of individual leaders and judge how they will get along with each other. In the years leading up to his latest appointment, Mr Li, 63, stuck to the same script as his colleagues. At the annual parliamentary meeting known as the National People’s Congress, he lavished praise on Mr Xi, crediting China’s “major achievements” in a “severe and complex international situation” to his “steering and steering”. Such terms recall the cult of personality that surrounded Mao Zedong.

But it is worth pondering what kind of leader Li Keqiang will become. His predecessor, Li Keqiang, 67, was not close to Xi and was sidelined by him after taking over as prime minister in 2013. Previously, however, the job offered a lot of leverage, especially in economic policy. Now two problems arise. Will Xi give Li Keqiang more freedom to set his own agenda? Maybe he trusts Li Keqiang more than Li Keqiang? If so, how will he use it?

The two Lees have very different backgrounds. The elders are knowledgeable, and the father is a middle-level official. He studied law and economics at the prestigious Peking University. The young man worked in pumping stations and factories before studying agricultural machinery in his native Zhejiang province. From the early days of his career, Li Keqiang seemed poised for a senior post in the central leadership. Li Qiang, by contrast, might have been little known outside Zhejiang had it not been for the arrival of Xi Jinping: In 2002, Xi became party secretary of Zhejiang province. Mr Li was then the party secretary of Wenzhou, the manufacturing hub of Zhejiang. In 2004, he was promoted to become Xi Jinping’s chief of staff. (He also continued his part-time studies at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, earning MBA 2005. )

When the ruling Politburo was reshuffled last October, Mr. Xi was surrounded by people he had worked with during his career in the provinces. Li Keqiang, then Shanghai party secretary, became his No. 2, replacing Li Keqiang. That’s a terrific boost. Unlike previous holders of the rank, he has no experience at the central rank. Some observers wondered whether his record in Shanghai, where he oversaw a two-month lockdown of the city until 2022, was met with widespread discontent among residents, doomed his chances of further ascent. But he was clearly impressed by Xi Jinping, who was advocating a tougher approach to covid-19.

However, Mr Li is no colorless bureaucrat. His instincts may be more attuned to those of private enterprise than Mr. Xi. And he might, just might, be ready to argue with his boss, even though he might be unwaveringly loyal.

In Shanghai, many businessmen like Mr. Li. He helped U.S. electric carmaker Tesla build a factory wholly owned by the company — a rare concession for a foreign company in China’s heavily protected auto industry. With the central government at a loss, he supports the use of imported vaccines. It still hasn’t approved their use, although Western-made vaccines are more effective than those made in China. Whether Li Keqiang’s policies will change after he becomes premier deserves attention.

Li Keqiang was put in charge of the country’s coronavirus task force following a reshuffle of the Politburo last year, news agency Reuters reported. He took steps to ease “zero coronavirus” restrictions. While the number of cases mounted and Mr. Xi wavered, Mr. Li “resisted pressure from the president to slow down the pace of reopening,” the news agency said. Reuters could not ascertain Xi’s reaction. But in February, Chinese leaders declared a “decisive victory” over covid.

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In the country’s highly secrecy political culture, such inside accounts are difficult to verify. But the public record of Mr Li’s career in the provinces occasionally suggests he is a man with opinions.

2015 offers a glimpse Guangming Daily, a newspaper in Beijing.While working in Zhejiang, Mr Li told a professor at Zhejiang University that the provincial government needed an “independent think tank, like rand corporation Corporation” evaluates its performance in the United States. According to Mr. Li, it is “difficult” for official agencies to provide objective analysis, and it is “difficult” for subordinates to criticize their superiors. So the professor formed a “civilian” panel of experts in 2009 (although There is a party constitution on it: Mr. Li was appointed honorary director).

After taking over as governor of Zhejiang Province in 2013, Li Keqiang asked experts to write a work report on “telling the truth.” “We’re going to be like the kids in The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the professor told the crowd. Even so, Lee reportedly felt the experts’ first attempt wasn’t critical enough, so he visited them for more Targeted face-to-face feedback. On March 13, Li Keqiang said at his first press conference after taking office as premier that he welcomed suggestions from netizens. On Weibo, a Twitter-like service, censors deleted many of their replies.

Unusually for a senior Han official, he flaunted his local identities, especially his ties to Wenzhou. The city is known in China for its maverick character, and its citizens showed a penchant for capitalism even under Mao Zedong. Its unique dialect, incomprehensible to outsiders, has fostered a sense of difference in Wenzhou (Mr. Li has an accent). “I was born in Wenzhou,” he said at the opening of the 2013 World Wenzhou People’s Congress, an organization he founded to encourage the city’s global diaspora to invest in their hometown. “Dare to be the first, especially the strong entrepreneurial spirit, has always inspired me and nourished me.”

Reducing bureaucratic interference in markets is one of his favorite themes. “Zhejiang is a place where the reform and opening up started earlier, and the awareness of market rules is relatively strong,” he said in an interview in 2015. “These entrepreneurs should go to the market instead of being cultivated in a greenhouse.” However, it is worth noting that, Mr. Li has played a pioneering role in the national government-backed effort to create “characteristic towns”, or industrial clusters focused on one type of business, and their surrounding residential areas. Zhejiang’s “Dream Town” for tech start-ups and “Chocolate Town” for chocolate producers (and tourists) are among his early creations. As the idea spread across China, many of these towns became speculative hotspots for property developers, and the businesses they were supposed to foster sometimes failed to take off. Some became ghost towns.

In speeches and interviews, Li Keqiang often speaks with gusto about Jack Ma, Zhejiang’s most famous private businessman and the outspoken founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba. Reading today, such remarks stand out: Jack Ma has all but disappeared from public view in 2020. He has dared to criticize financial regulators in speeches. In response, they lashed out at Ant Group, Alibaba’s financial affiliate, and blocked its listing. This is the beginning of a regulatory onslaught against China’s big tech companies. Last year, as the economy faltered, Mr. Xi — keen on private-sector support to revive it — began to speak softer to billionaires.

Mr Lee’s appointment may help calm their nerves. But businessmen will still feel anxious. On March 10, the legislature approved a central government restructuring plan that could further weaken the prime minister and hand it over to Xi Jinping. This also allowed Xi Jinping to serve as the president of the country for an unprecedented third time. None of the 2,952 delegates present voted against it. To prevent any netizens from becoming interested in this consensus, Weibo blocked searches for “#2952”. Mr Li would be very cautious if he had any different views on how China should be governed. He knows the emperor too well.

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