After a decade in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s shadow, Li Keqiang is taking his final bow as the country’s premier, marking a shift away from the skilled technocrats who have helped steer the world’s second-biggest economy in favor of officials known mainly for their unquestioned loyalty to China’s most powerful leader in recent history.
After exiting the ruling Communist Party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee in October — despite being below retirement age — Li’s last major task was delivering the state of the nation address to the rubber-stamp parliament on Monday. The report sought to reassure citizens of the resiliency of the Chinese economy, but contained little that was new.
Once seen as a potential top leader, Li was increasingly sidelined as Xi accumulated ever-greater powers and elevated the military and security services in aid of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Li’s lack of visibility sometimes made it difficult to remember he was technically ranked No. 2 in party.
Li “was a premier largely kept out of the limelight by order of the boss,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies and a longtime observer of Chinese politics.
In an era where personal loyalty trumps all, the fact that Li wasn’t seen purely as a Xi loyalist may end up being “the main reason why he will be remembered fondly,” Tsang said.
For most of his career, Li was known as a cautious, capable, and highly intelligent bureaucrat who rose through, and was bound by, a consensus-oriented Communist Party that reflexively stifles dissent.
As governor and then party secretary of the densely populated agricultural province of Henan in the 1990s, Li squelched reporting on an AIDS outbreak tied to illegal blood-buying rings that pooled plasma and reinjected it into donors after removing the blood products, allegedly with the collusion of local officials.
While Li was not in office when the scandal broke, his administration worked to quiet it up, prevented victims from seeking redress and harassed private citizens working on behalf of orphans and others affected.
But Li also cut a modestly different profile, an English speaker from a generation of politicians schooled during a time of greater openness to liberal Western ideas. Introduced to politics during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, he made it into prestigious Peking University, where he studied law and economics, on his own merits rather than through political connections.
After graduation, Li went to work at the Communist Youth League, an organization that grooms university students for party roles, then headed by future president and party leader Hu Jintao. Higher office soon followed.
Among the largely faceless ranks of Chinese bureaucrats, Li managed to show an unusually candid streak. In a U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, Li is quoted telling diplomats that Chinese economic growth statistics were “man-made,” and saying he looked instead to electricity demand, rail cargo traffic, and lending as more accurate indicators.
Though no populist, in his speeches and public appearances, Li was practically typhonic compared to the typically languorous Xi.
Yet, he largely failed to make effective use of the platforms he was given, unlike his immediate predecessors. At his sole annual news conference on the closing day of each congressional annual session, Li used up most of his time repeating talks points and reciting statistics. Throughout the upheavals of China’s three-year battle against COVID-19, Li was practically invisible.
Li, who hailed from humble backgrounds, had been seen as Hu’s preferred successor as president. But the need to balance party factions prompted the leadership to choose Xi, the son of a former vice premier and party elder, as the consensus candidate.
The two never formed anything like the partnership that characterized Hu’s relationship with his premier, Wen Jiabao — or Mao Zedong’s with the redoubtable Zhou Enlai — although Li and Xi never openly disagreed over fundamentals.
“Xi is not the first among equals, but rather is way above equal,” said Cheng Li, an expert on the Chinese leadership at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. Ultimately, Li was a “team player” who put party unity foremost, he said.
Meanwhile, Li’s authority was being gradually shrunk, beginning with a reorganization of offices in 2018. While some may have wished Li had been more “influential or decisive,” the ground was crumbling under his feet as Xi shifted more of the powers of the State Council, China’s Cabinet, to party institutions, Cheng Li said. That shift to expanded party control is expected to continue at the current congress meeting on an even greater scale.
At the same time, Xi appeared to favor trusted long-time brothers-in-arms such as economic adviser Liu He and head of the legislature Li Zhanshu, over Li, leaving him with little visibility or influence.
His departure leaves major questions about the future of the private sector that Xi has been reining in, along with wider economic reforms championed by Li and his cohort. His expected replacement, Li Qiang, is a crony of Xi’s from his days in provincial government, best known for his ruthless implementation of last spring’s monthslong COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai.
“Li Keqiang has been associated with a more economics-focused take on governance, which contrasts strongly with the ideological tone that Xi has brought to politics,” said Rana Mitter of Oxford University.
“Li may be the last premier of his type, at least for a while,” Mitter said.
Li may be remembered less for what he achieved than for the fact that he was the last of the technocrats to serve at the top of the Chinese Communist Party, said Carl Minzner, an expert on Chinese law and governance at New York’s Fordham University and the Council on Foreign Relations.
Politically, Xi’s authoritarian tendencies risk a return to Mao-era practices where elite politics become “yet more byzantine, vicious, and unstable,” Minzner said.
Li’s departure “marks the end of an era in which expertise and performance, rather than political loyalty to Xi himself, was the primary career criterion for ambitious officials seeking to rise up to higher office,” he said.