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Chinese premier Li Keqiang to retire

Aopening ceremony At the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress on March 5, Premier Li Keqiang will bow to nearly 3,000 delegates at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing before bowing again to the country’s top leader, Xi Jinping. He will then deliver his final State of the Union address and pay tribute to Mr Xi. In a few days, Mr Li will be replaced. It would mark the end of a remarkable era in Chinese politics when two top jobs were held by two men with vastly different family backgrounds, different networks and seemingly different worldviews. After Li Keqiang, only Xi’s minions will be in the limelight.

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It is unlikely that anyone in the hall will be openly thinking about how different the country would be if Li Keqiang, instead of Xi, sat at the center of the podium. In the early 2000s, things looked likely to turn out that way, with Mr Li — not Xi Jinping — becoming the top leader. Another notable feature of the past decade has been the fact that a politician once seen as a serious contender for the role ended up as the No. Big power shows no sign of resistance. His own price. Soon after Li Keqiang took over as premier in 2013, observers began to wonder whether his official rankings exaggerated his authority.

In Communist China, the prime minister’s job is often politically awkward. It takes care of the day-to-day running of the government, usually with an economic focus. But the dividing line between that role and the supreme leader is not clear. Tensions may ensue. Historian Gao Wenqian wrote in his 2008 biography of Zhou Enlai that Mao felt he had to draw closer to his premier, Zhou Enlai, “even if he raised his whip and sometimes beat the man he couldn’t live without”. In the 1980s, the feud between the prime minister and the general secretary intensified; the democratic unrest in 1989 was driven by one man.

But Mr Xi’s relationship with Mr Li is not like Mao Zedong’s relationship with Zhou Enlai. There is little sign of reliance on Mr Lee. Instead, Xi Jinping, who became China’s leader in 2012, has sidelined him, turning more to Liu He for economic advice. Mr Liu and Xi Jinping were friends when they were teenagers. Mr Liu, who became one of Mr Li’s deputies in 2018, is also about to retire.

Rumors of a feud between Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping swirled early last year. Some of Mr. Li’s remarks appeared aimed at placating businessmen spooked by the regulator’s crackdown on large non-state-owned companies. Analysts wondered whether he expressed disapproval of Mr. Xi’s ideologically-oriented approach to managing the economy. In a televised address to more than 100,000 officials in May, Li Keqiang warned of the dangers of a weak economy and called on them to work harder to boost growth. His focus appeared to differ from that of Xi Jinping, who at the time emphasized the need to maintain tight control over the spread of covid-19.

At the five-yearly party congress in October, some observers were surprised that Li Keqiang resigned from all party positions, even though at the age of 67, the convention allowed him to remain on the Politburo Standing Committee. Even so, he will relinquish the prime ministership for a maximum of two terms at this month’s parliamentary session. But he could have taken another job, such as chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

Yet there is little convincing evidence that Li Keqiang has engaged in a power struggle with Xi, whom he has been careful to pay homage to (see chart). Part of the speculation may be the product of wishful thinking, buoyed by the widespread perception that Mr Lee is a pro-Western reformer. Unlike Mr Xi, whose career has benefited from the strength of his father, a veteran revolutionary, Mr Li has built his career on academic prowess. Mr. Xi was admitted in 1975 by Tsinghua University, one of China’s most prestigious universities, to study chemical engineering. He was a “worker-peasant-soldier” student who was selected on the basis of his family background. In 1977, thanks to a highly competitive examination, Mr Li was eligible to study law and economics at Tsinghua University’s rival Peking University. His professor Li Yining, an inspiration to China’s economic reformers, died on February 27.

For much of Xi’s college years, China was under the control of Mao Zedong or his conservative successor, Hua Guofeng. When Mr. Li was a student, the political atmosphere was different. Peking University is a hotbed of liberal ideas. Mr Lee rubbed shoulders with students who, after graduation, helped spark the intellectual unrest surrounding the 1989 pro-democracy movement. Wang Juntao, who is in exile in the United States, is one of them. Mr Wang said Mr Li was “very interested” in political reform as a student, but because of Mr Xi’s prowess, he kept those ideas to himself as prime minister.

Li Keqiang certainly did not follow the example of his predecessor, Wen Jiabao, who at his last news conference as premier in 2012 sounded an unusually strong warning about the dangers of ignoring reforms, especially the “leadership system”. Mr Wen said that if nothing changed, “historical tragedies like the Cultural Revolution may happen again”.Just months before Mr Xi took over, he began phasing in modest political reforms, such as banning a personality cult and adopting a more collective style of leadership, introduced in the 1980s to prevent another Mao Zedong

But businessmen and diplomats who met Mr. Li were impressed by his economic analysis. When he was Secretary of the Liaoning Provincial Party Committee in 2007, he told the US ambassador gross domestic product The numbers there are “artificial” and unreliable, according to a leaked U.S. memo. “He always felt that I was being lied to, that I was not being told the truth and that I had to find out the truth in order to understand how to steer the economy,” said Joerg Wuttke, the head of the agency. European Union China Chamber of Commerce. “He was more of a professor type than a power broker at times.”

In a few days, the upcoming National People’s Congress will “elect” Li Keqiang’s successor (effectively rubber-stamp Xi Jinping’s choice). The next prime minister is almost certain to be Li Qiang’s near-namesake former Shanghai party chief, who became No. 2 in the Politburo at last year’s party congress.

Li Keqiang started his career in the Communist Youth League — an alma mater that is different from the faction that now surrounds Mr. Xi. In contrast, Li Qiang is Xi Jinping’s favorite student. That could give him authority that Li Keqiang lacks. Optimists say it might even be a good thing if he uses it to steer Mr. Xi away from the party’s hard-line grip on the economy. But he started the job with no experience at the highest levels of central government and little public support: His mishandling of Shanghai’s two-month lockdown last year sparked widespread discontent among the city’s 25 million residents.

The closeness to Xi clearly outweighs any such shortcomings. During the legislative session, which is expected to last one to two weeks, it will become more apparent that all the power comes from the supreme leader and the numerous party bodies he leads, rather than from the government department led by the prime minister. Delegates will discuss a proposal for “reform of party and state institutions” that is expected to give the party more direct control over some government agencies. They will give Xi an unprecedented third five-year term as president. It doesn’t matter. As the leader of the party and the army, he is the leader no matter what.

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