The second-most powerful man in China
The true believers had gathered at their stronghold in Beijing – a leafy campus between the Old Summer Palace and Summer Palace on a freezing day in February to hear their leader speak.
More than 400 members had assembled at the Central Party School in Haidan, a bastion of Chinese Communist Party theory that has taught generations of ministers, bureaucrats and academics.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his right-hand man Li Qiang. Credit:Jamie Brown
One rose above them to introduce China’s President Xi Jinping, a bespectacled 63-year-old from Ruian on the country’s southern coast that had once proposed a pilot for opening China’s internet to the West, called for a more limited role for government and praised Alibaba chief Jack Ma as an entrepreneurial icon that the nation should admire.
Li Qiang, who will become China’s new premier at the National People’s Congress next week, is no ideologue. The former factory worker is a pragmatist and loyalist who over the past three decades in public life sniffed the winds of change before they caught up with him.
On stage in Beijing in February, Li told those gathered at the Party school that Xi, China’s most Marxist leader since Mao, had “enriched and developed the theory of Chinese modernisation” and his words “should be carefully studied and grasped”.
He will now become the second most powerful man in China, a remarkable turnaround for the party secretary who was last year accused of botching Shanghai’s response to COVID-19 and who has courted entrepreneurs now out of favour in Xi’s China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and Premier Li Keqiang at last year’s National People’s Congress. Credit:AP
Unlike his predecessor, Li Keqiang (an economist and ally of former president Hu Jintao), Li’s rise has not been tied to keeping rival factions at bay or to the pretence of maintaining a parallel system of governance that gave the Premier some influence over policy.
Chinese Premiers have historically been particularly focused on managing the economy, leaving political matters, such as ideology, personnel, and security to the Party leader.
“Over the past 10 years, Xi has jeopardised the role of premier,” said Aflred Wu an associate professor in Chinese politics at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “Xi Jinping just wants himself to be number one.”
Li has been Xi’s man since he was his chief of staff as a local party official in Zhejiang two decades ago and has followed the Chinese President up the ranks of the Party’s hierarchy all the way to the Politburo standing committee.
“He’s a yes-man,” said Wu, who witnessed Li’s rise along with Xi during their formative years in southern China.
“He will be more like a secretary than a premier.”
Many of his peers from Zhejiang, who are known as the New Zhejiang Army, have done well too. They are the only faction remaining in the standing committee after Xi wiped out his rivals at November’s National Party Congress.
Li Xi, China’s top disciplinarian and Cai Qi, the Party’s first secretary also did their apprenticeships with Xi in Zhejiang. All three are now members of the standing committee, giving Xi and his closest lieutenants four out of the seven most powerful positions in China.
“Zhejiang represents Xi’s major power base,” said Wu Guoguang of the University of Victoria in Canada.
Li will be at the top of Xi’s pyramid. He will also be a crucial ear for foreign governments, including Australia.
His past reveals a flirtation with smaller government, freedom of information and pro-business policies that have changed dramatically during Xi’s ten years in power.
In 2013, Li gave a rare interview with the Chinese business magazine Caixin. The then secretary of Zhejiang lauded the entrepreneurial spirit of the province, which has few natural resources but became a pioneer of high-tech manufacturing.
“They have an attitude toward business that says it’s glorious to earn even a penny,” said Li.
“There are two layers of meaning to that expression. The first is that earning money is glorious, not shameful. The second is that earning even a little bit of money is glorious. They don’t fear hard work, don’t fear small profits, and are not afraid of others who may look down on them.”
The sentiment was not uncommon in the heady days of China’s double-digit growth rates, but Li went further than most by flirting with deregulation.
“In recent years, I’ve sometimes felt the government’s visible hand has become a hand that can’t keep still,” he said. “There are three things we need to do to modernise our governing process: We should be limited, make a difference, and be effective.”
It was not Li’s only dance with liberal economic rhetoric more commonly seen in Washington or Canberra. By 2014, Li had proposed turning the historic town of Wuzhen into a pilot zone to allow some residents to break out of China’s great firewall and access the global internet.
“The provincial government endeavours to build Wuzhen into a rendezvous for the global Internet entrepreneurs and innovators to brainstorm and explore cooperation possibilities,” he said.
Alibaba CEO Jack Ma in 2005. Credit:Getty
The proposal was shut down by Beijing, but Li continued feting China’s tech stars.
“The power of such an entrepreneurial icon is inestimable. Jack Ma and a host of other visiting IT magnates will definitely bolster the morale of ambitious newcomers and start-ups,” Li said.
Ma disappeared for six months in 2021 during a regulatory crackdown on China’s tech titans. The Alibaba founder fell out of favour, but it did little to dent Li’s rise.
By 2017 he was made Party Secretary of Shanghai, Xi’s old post, and put on track for the Politburo. The period was marked by some commercial successes including the opening of the $600 billion STAR market on the Shanghai Stock Exchange and the Tesla Gigafactory, but few public comments from the once outspoken Party official.
In his last six months, he faced the biggest test of his career, a spiralling COVID outbreak that saw millions of Shanghai’s residents confined to their apartments, triggering protests that became the pre-cursor for the civil unrest across China late last year.
“[The] Shanghai party secretary should just acknowledge his mistake and resign,” one user wrote on the Chinese social media service Weibo. “Shameless politician destroyed Shanghai,” said another.
The Wall Street Journal reported in November that Li was not personally in favour of ongoing lockdowns and even raised using Western-made mRNA vaccines but both of those requests ultimately fell on deaf ears in Beijing.
A year later and on the cusp of his elevation to premier, locals in Shanghai don’t give Li much credit. Their concerns, like much of China’s workers, are focused on the challenges of daily life, not the machinations of the Party-elite.
“He is an almost unknown person,” said Jin, who asked only to be known by his last name because the topic is politically sensitive in China. “As a Shanghainese, I don’t feel proud. Because they are not Shanghai natives. Xi Jinping served in Shanghai for less than one year.
“It’s only gold-plating but made no actual contribution to Shanghai. His appointment as premier won’t make any difference to people in Shanghai.”
Man, a DIDI car share driver, said he had never paid attention to who is the Shanghai party secretary, as it made no difference to him.
“Can he help us make money? If so, I will,” he said.
Chameleon, faceless man or quiet economic agitator, one way or another, Australia will want to get to know Li.
“He knows Xi quite well, so he can give messages to Xi,” says Wu. “But I really think there is only one number one in China, so people need to be realistic.”
On the same day, Li hosted Xi’s speech to the Party faithful in February, the US Navy released images of it retrieving a Chinese-made balloon that had blown across the United States. The days leading up to it had seen diplomatic barbs and military threats reverberate across the Pacific.
Xi’s message was clear: China’s modernisation “dispels the myth that modernisation is equal to Westernisation”.
Li’s task will be to implement that vision and the division that it carries with it.
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