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China Premier Li Keqiang bows out as Xi loyalists take reins

BEIJING — After a decade in the shadow of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang is taking his final bow as the country’s prime minister, marking a shift from the skilled technocrats who helped steer the country’s second-largest economy large of the world in favor of officials known mainly for their undisputed loyalty. to ChinaThe most powerful leader in recent history.

After leaving the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo standing committee in October – despite being below retirement age – Li’s last major task was to deliver the state of the nation address to rubber parliament on Monday. The report sought to reassure citizens of the resilience of the Chinese economy, but contained little that was new.

Once seen as a potential leader, Li has been increasingly marginalized as Xi has amassed 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 that he was technically ranked No. 2 in the match.

Li “was largely kept out of the spotlight by order of the leader,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and a long-time observer of Chinese politics.

In an era where personal loyalty trumps all, the fact that Li was not seen simply as a Xi loyalist may be “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 developed, and was bound by, a consensus-oriented Communist Party that reflexively faced dissent.

As governor and then party secretary of the densely populated agricultural province of Henan in the 1990s, Li debunked reports of an AIDS outbreak linked to illegal blood-buying rings that added plasma and reinjected it into donors later. having removed blood products, allegedly with collusion. of local officials.

While Li was not in office when the scandal broke, his administration worked to quell it, barred victims from seeking reparations 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 school politicians at a time more open to Western liberal ideas. Introduced to politics during the chaotic Cultural Revolution 1966-76, he attended the prestigious Peking University, where he studied law and economics, on his own merits rather than because of political connections.

After graduation, Li went to work at the Communist Youth League, an organization that prepares university students for party roles, then led by future president and party leader Hu Jintao. The higher office soon followed.

Among the largely faceless ranks of Chinese bureaucrats, Li has managed to display an unusually sincere streak. In a US State Department cable released by WikiLeaksHe is quoted as telling diplomats that China’s economic growth statistics were “man-made,” and saying that he looked instead at electricity demand, rail freight traffic, and loans as more accurate indicators.

Although not a populist, in his speeches and public appearances, Li was practically typhonic compared to the typically languid Xi.

However, he largely failed to make effective use of the platforms he was given, unlike his immediate predecessors. At his only annual press conference on the closing day of each annual session of Congress, Li used most of his time to repeat talking points and recite statistics. Throughout the upheavals of China’s three-year battle against COVID-19, Li was virtually invisible.

Li, who came from humble backgrounds, had been seen as Hu’s preferred successor as president. But the need to balance the party’s factions prompted the leadership to choose Xi, the son of a former vice-premier and senior party official, as the consensus candidate.

The two never formed anything like the partnership that characterized Hu’s relationship with his prime minister, Wen Jiabao – or Mao Zedong with the redoubtable Zhou Enlai – although Li and Xi never openly disagreed over it. to the basics.

“Xi is not first among equals, but he is far above equals,” said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese leadership at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. Ultimately, Li was a “team player” who placed the unity of the party first. he said.

Meanwhile, Li’s authority has been gradually reduced, starting with a reorganization of offices in 2018. While some may have wished that Li had been more “influential or decisive”, the ground was collapsing under the his feet, as Xi has changed more than the powers of the State. Adviser, the Chinese Cabinet, to the party institutions, said Cheng Li. This shift to extended party control is expected to continue in the current session of Congress on an even larger scale.

At the same time, Xi appeared to favor longtime trusted 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 big questions about the future of the private sector that Xi has cooled, along with broader economic reforms championed by Li and his cohort. His expected replacement, Li Qiang, is a holdover from Xi from his days in the provincial government, best known for his ruthless implementation of the COVID-19 lockdown last spring in Shanghai.

“Li Keqiang has been associated with a more economy-centric take on governance, which contrasts sharply with the ideological tone that Xi has brought to politics,” said Rana Mitter of the University of Oxford.

“He may be the last premier of his kind, at least for a while,” Mitter said.

He 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 the Fordham University of New York Council on Foreign Relations.

Politically, Xi’s authoritarian tendencies risk a return to Mao-era practices where elite politics becomes “even 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 to higher office,” he said.

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