BEIJING (AP) — After a decade in the shadow of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang is taking his final bow as the country’s premier, marking a shift away from the skilled technocrats who helped run the world’s second-largest economy in favor of high-profile officials largely because their unquestioning loyalty to China’s most powerful leader in recent history.
After quitting the ruling Communist Party’s all-powerful 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 the approved parliament on Monday. The report sought to reassure citizens of the resilience of China’s economy, but contained little new.
Once seen as a potential top leader, Li was increasingly sidelined as Xi amassed ever-greater powers and elevated the military and security services to aid the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Li’s lack of visibility sometimes made it difficult to remember that he was technically the party’s No. 2.
Li “was a premier who was largely kept out of the limelight by order of the boss,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the University of London’s Faculty of Oriental and African Studies and a longtime observer of Chinese politics.
In an era where personal loyalty trumps everything, the fact that Li was not seen as just a loyal supporter of Xi 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 stifled dissent.
As governor and then party secretary of the densely populated agricultural province of Henan in the 1990s, Li suppressed reporting of an AIDS epidemic linked to illegal blood-buying rings that collected plasma and re-injected it into donors after removal of blood products as allegedly colluded by local officials.
While Li was not in office when the scandal broke, his administration worked to quell it, prevented victims from seeking redress, and harassed private citizens working on behalf of orphans and others affected.
But Li also had a slightly different profile, an English-speaking generation of politicians trained in a time of greater openness to liberal Western ideas. Familiar with politics during the chaotic Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, he managed to enter the prestigious Peking University, where he studied law and economics, more on his own merits than through political connections.
After graduation, Li went to work for the Communist Youth League, an organization that prepared students for party roles, then headed by future president and party leader Hu Jintao. A higher position soon followed.
Among the largely impersonal ranks of China’s bureaucrats, Li managed to display an unusually outspoken streak. In a US State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, Li was quoted as telling diplomats that China’s economic growth statistics were “man-made”, and said he instead looked at electricity demand, rail freight traffic and lending as more accurate indicators.
Although not a populist, in his speeches and public appearances, Li was almost Typhonian compared to the typically lazy Xi.
Yet he has largely failed to make effective use of the platforms he has been given, unlike his immediate predecessors. At his only annual news conference on the last day of each annual session of Congress, Lee spends most of his time repeating talking points and reciting statistics. During the upheavals of China’s three-year battle against COVID-19, Li was virtually invisible.
Li, who came from a humble background, was seen as Hu’s preferred successor as president. But the need to balance party factions led the leadership to select Xi, the son of a former vice premier and party leader, 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 formidable Zhou Enlai – although Li and Xi never openly disagreed on fundamental issues.
“Xi is not first among equals, but rather far above equals,” said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese leadership at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. After all, Li was a “team player” who put party unity first, he said.
Meanwhile, Li’s power has been gradually shrinking, beginning with a reorganization of offices in 2018. While some may have wished Li had been more “influential or decisive,” the ground crumbled under his feet as Xi transferred more of the state’s powers Council, the cabinet of China, to the party institutions, Cheng Li said. This shift toward expanded party control is expected to continue in the current Congress on an even greater scale.
At the same time, Xi appeared to favor trusted longtime brothers-in-arms like economic adviser Liu He and head of the legislature Li Zhangshu over Li, leaving him with little visibility or influence
His departure leaves big questions about the future of the private sector that Xi ran, along with the broader economic reforms championed by Li and his cohort. His expected replacement, Li Qiang, is a friend of Xi’s from his days in the provincial government, best known for his ruthless enforcement of Shanghai’s months-long COVID-19 lockdown last spring.
“Li Keqiang has been associated with a more economics-focused view of governance, which contrasts sharply with the ideological tone Xi has brought to politics,” said Rana Miter of the University of Oxford.
“Lee may be the last prime minister of this type, at least for a while,” Miter said.
Li may be remembered less for what he accomplished 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 Fordham University in New York and Council on Foreign Relations.
Politically, Xi’s authoritarian tendencies risk a return to Mao-era practices, where elite politics became “even more Byzantine, vicious and unstable,” Mintzner 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.