The appointment of Li Qiang as China’s next Premier, confirmed on Saturday by the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing, has left a long-time ally of current leader Xi Jinping holding the reins of the world’s second-largest economy for the next decade.
The unexpected and rapid rise of Mr. Li, 63, has underlined the total and sweeping control that Mr. Xi currently enjoys. On Friday, Han Zheng, the former Vice Premier, was appointed Vice President, while two other Xi allies were appointed to head the NPC and the CPPCC (Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference).
At the height of his political power, even Mao Zedong had to contend with political rivals who occupied top posts in the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC). But Mr. Xi, who in 2018 did away with the two-term limit that restrained his predecessors, faces no such challenge having engineered, last October, a complete sweep of the Politburo and forcing into early retirement of senior leaders like Li Keqiang, the former Premier.
The new Premier steps into a post that has been diminished over the past decade. In China’s recent history, Premiers, from Zhu Rongji to Wen Jiabao, held great sway under the collective leadership model left behind by Deng Xiaoping, essentially left to run the economy.
Mr. Xi, however, disbanded the collective leadership model, and exercised complete control over economic policymaking through party leading groups, leaving the Premier, who heads the State Council and government ministries, with the task of merely executing policy. If Mr. Xi and Mr. Li Keqiang appeared cordial in public, there was no shortage of rumours of differences between the two on policy matters, from Mr. Xi’s stringent three year “zero COVID” regime to the relentless tightening of controls over the private sector.
Mr. Li Qiang (pronounced chee-ang) rose up the party ranks in his native Zhejiang, the prosperous eastern coastal province known for its industry and entrepreneurship. He worked closely with Mr. Xi during the five years he was posted in Zhejiang, from 2002 until 2007. When Mr. Xi arrived in Zhejiang, Mr. Li was in charge of the city of Wenzhou. Two years later, he was promoted to the provincial party committee, which was headed at the time by Mr. Xi. Serving as its secretary-general, he worked as Mr. Xi’s chief of staff for almost four years.
In 2017, as Mr. Xi began his second five-year term and promoted many of his key allies, Mr. Li joined the 25 member Politburo and was appointed the Party head of Shanghai, a key post that signalled he was in line for a top job at the next Party Congress in 2022.
Lockdown in Shanghai
That prospect was, however, left in doubt in March last year, when Shanghai’s handling of a two-month lockdown that saw food and medicine shortages was widely criticised around the country. Reports at the time said Mr. Li had been in favour of a softer approach, but had been overruled by Beijing with Mr. Xi dispatching a senior Vice Premier in charge of COVID policy to oversee the lockdown.
That did not, however, appear to count against him when Mr. Xi, in the October congress, went ahead with appointing him as the party’s second-ranked leader.
Mr. Xi, in early December, finally abandoned the “zero-COVID” regime, days after unprecedented protests broke out against lockdowns in several Chinese cities. Mr. Xi had, according to reports, originally intended to persist with zero-COVID until after the conclusion of the current NPC session, which ends on March 13, but reports have suggested Mr. Li was among those who persuaded him for an earlier withdrawal of the policy.
“Since rising to No. 2 in the Communist Party hierarchy last fall, Mr. Li has played leading roles in freeing China from zero-COVID and refocusing the government on economic growth,” The Wall Street Journal reported this week, citing unnamed sources. “Those moves have kindled cautious optimism among entrepreneurs, investors and political analysts that he may be able to exert a moderating influence on his boss,” the report said. That is certainly the hope of the private sector, which has, during Mr. Xi’s second-term, come under relentless pressure from Beijing’s regulators. In Zhejiang, known in China for its thriving private sector, Mr. Li cultivated a business-friendly approach. But how much space he will be given to run the economy remains the all-important question.
With Mr. Xi now stacking all the top jobs with his men (there are no women in the current 24-member Politburo), the view of some Beijing insiders is that he might take less hands-on control over some matters while leaving his appointees to execute his agenda. At the NPC, Mr. Xi has indicated the immediate focus will be on the economy and accelerating self-reliance in key strategic sectors, another project that Mr. Li will be tasked with.
As veteran Beijing-based political analyst Wu Qiang put it this week, Mr. Li’s appointment “put an end to more than 40 years of China’s two-headed governance system” where power was shared by the President and Premier —“often called the rivalry between southern and northern Zhongnanhai,” referring to the sprawling government headquarters west of the Forbidden City in Beijing.
The tensions between the north and south, where sit the offices of the Premier and President respectively, in policymaking were an open secret during the past decade, with the State Council seeing an extraordinarily dilution of its power and influence.
“The co-governance situation between the party and the State Council has become harmonious for the first time, and it can also be said that the State Council’s presence has become so weak for the first time,” Mr. Wu told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. “Li Qiang is more like a chief executive officer.”
The next Premier, however, might, somewhat ironically, find greater space in policymaking, with expectations that Mr. Xi, 69, with a completely trusted aide now at the helm of the State Council, might relinquish some control, and play less of a role of, as he had come to be known after a decade in charge, the “chairman of everything”.