Li Keqiang is taking his final bow as China’s premier after spending a decade under Chinese President Xi Jinping, signaling a change from the skilled technocrats who have helped lead the world’s second-largest economy to officials more well-known for their unwavering loyalty to China’s most powerful leader in recent memory.
Li’s final significant responsibility before retiring was to deliver the state of the nation speech to the rubber-stamp parliament on Monday after leaving the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee of the ruling Communist Party in October while still being under retirement age.
Although it offered little new information, the report aimed to reassure residents about the resilience of the Chinese economy.
When Xi began to amass ever-greater power and elevated the military and security apparatus in support of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese country,” Li—once considered a possible top leader—became more and more marginalized.
It was sometimes difficult to remember that Li was nominally placed No. 2 in the party due to his lack of visibility.
Li was a premier who was “mostly kept out of the spotlight by order of the boss,” according to Steve Tsang, head of the China Institute at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies and a lifelong follower of Chinese politics.
The fact that Li wasn’t only perceived as a Xi supporter may end up being “the fundamental reason why he would be remembered favorably” in an era where personal loyalty triumphs over all, according to Tsang.
During the majority of his career, Li was seen as a cautious, competent, and highly intellectual bureaucrat who was bound by a consensus-oriented Communist Party that instinctively suppresses criticism and who progressed through its ranks.
Li squelched reporting on an AIDS outbreak linked to illegal blood-buying rings that purportedly worked with the cooperation of local officials to pool plasma and re-inject it into donors after removing the blood products in the 1990s while serving as governor and later party secretary of the densely populated agricultural province of Henan.
Even though Li wasn’t in charge when the crisis started, his administration tried to put a stop to it, discouraged victims from seeking compensation, and harassed those who were advocating for orphans and other impacted parties.
Li, an English speaker from a generation of legislators educated at a time when liberal Western values were more widely accepted, yet cut a slightly different profile.
He was first exposed to politics during the turbulent 1966–1976 Cultural Revolution and entered the esteemed Peking University on his own merits rather than through political ties, where he studied law and economics.
Upon graduation, Li began working for the Communist Youth League, a group that trains college students for leadership positions in the party and was formerly led by Hu Jintao, the future president and party chief. Larger positions quickly followed.
Li was able to display an unprecedented level of candor among the mainly faceless ranks of Chinese bureaucrats. According to a WikiLeaks cable from the U.S. State Department, Li told diplomats that he believed loans, electricity demand, and rail cargo traffic to be more reliable measures of economic growth than the “man-made” numbers for China.
Li wasn’t a populist, but in contrast to the generally languid Xi, he was virtually typhonic in his speeches and public appearances.
But unlike his immediate predecessors, he mostly failed to exploit the platforms that were provided to him effectively. Li spent most of his one yearly press conference, held on the final day of each legislature’s annual session, reiterating talking points and facts. Li was essentially invisible throughout the upheavals of China’s three-year conflict with COVID-19.
Li, who came from a lowly background, was thought to be Hu’s choice to succeed him as president. However, the leadership decided to go with Xi, the son of a previous vice premier and party elder, as the consensus candidate in order to maintain party faction balance.
Despite the fact that Li and Xi never openly differed on principles, the two never developed anything akin to the alliance that defined Hu’s relationship with his premier, Wen Jiabao, or Mao Zedong’s with the legendary Zhou Enlai.
The Brookings Center in Washington, D.C.’s Cheng Li, a specialist on Chinese leadership, stated that Xi was not the first among equals but rather was far above equal. In the end, he claimed, Li was a “team player” who prioritized maintaining party cohesion.
Meanwhile, Li’s power was gradually being reduced, starting in 2018 with an office restructure. While some would have hoped Li had been more “decisive or authoritative,” Cheng Li claimed that as Xi transferred more authority from the State Council, China’s Cabinet, to party institutions, Li’s position was becoming untenable. At the current congress conference, it’s anticipated that the trend to stronger party control will intensify.
At the same time, Li had little visibility or influence because Xi seemed to prefer reliable longtime allies like economic advisor Liu He and chairman of the legislature Li Zhanshu.
Major issues remain in the wake of his departure over the direction of the private sector, which Xi has been trying to control, as well as broader economic changes supported by Li and his allies. His anticipated replacement, Li Qiang, is a close friend of Xi from when he served in the provincial government. Li Qiang is best known for his brutal execution of the months-long COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai last spring.
The ideological tone that Xi has brought to politics contrasts sharply with the more economics-focused approach to government that Li Keqiang has been associated with, according to Oxford University’s Rana Mitter.
Li might be the last premier of his kind for a while, according to Mitter.
According to Carl Minzner, a specialist in Chinese law and government at Fordham University and the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Li may be remembered less for his accomplishments than for the fact that he was the final technocrat to hold a position of power within the Chinese Communist Party.
According to Minzner, Xi’s authoritarian instincts run the risk of elite politics becoming “even more byzantine, violent, and unstable,” a throwback to Mao-era methods.
Li’s retirement “marks the end of an era where knowledge and performance, rather than political fealty to Xi himself, was the major career criterion for ambitious officials trying to advance up to higher rank,” the official added.