The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s new Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) met with local and foreign press at the Golden Hall of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 23 October. Walking closely behind CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping was Shanghai party secretary Li Qiang.
With a solemn expression and careful steps, Li took a calculated pause before going on stage, keeping a greater distance from Xi in front of him.
As the number two in the PSC, Li is expected to take over Li Keqiang’s role as premier at the annual Two Sessions next March. When that happens, the Chinese State Council will bid farewell to the Li Keqiang era and enter the Li Qiang era.
The elevation of Li Qiang to the number two spot in the PSC came as a surprise to many.
Five years ago when he became a member of the 19th Politburo and the Shanghai party secretary, many believed that he had a bright future. But his star fell earlier this year when Shanghai’s pandemic spun out of control, causing much public angst.
Some views have it that Shanghai’s apt and targeted anti-Covid measures were effective in the early stages, speaking of the inclusive and innovative nature of Li Qiang’s policies. Even if Shanghai had to be locked down later, this did not take anything away from Li’s contributions. More importantly, he won the Shanghai Covid battle in the end and gained the approval of the CCP’s top leader.
Sixty-three-year-old Li Qiang hails from Zhejiang’s Ruian, which is under the administration of Wenzhou, a centre of China’s private economy. He was a worker in his younger days, later enrolling in the Zhejiang Institute of Agriculture’s Ningbo campus after the Cultural Revolution. Between 2003 and 2005, he did his MBA at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Li’s management of the developed southeast coastal region, where he has spent much of his political career, is expected to be his greatest strength.
Li has a reputation as Xi’s lieutenant who was Xi’s chief of staff when Xi was the Zhejiang party secretary. But aside from this fact, what are some of his other traits, and what will his leadership style be like as head of the State Council?
Li’s management of the developed southeast coastal region, where he has spent much of his political career, is expected to be his greatest strength. In the last decade, he has served as governor of Zhejiang and the party secretary of Jiangsu and Shanghai, making him a rare senior cadre who has helmed the three regions of the Yangtze River Delta megalopolis. This has given him great experience in promoting economic openness and integrated development.
Chinese media reported that during his term as Zhejiang governor, Li focused on deepening reform, streamlining administrative practices and decentralising the government. He proposed confining power within an institutional cage (制度笼子) to build a limited, capable and effective service-oriented government based on the rule of law.
He also focused on developing “feature towns” (特色小镇) and the information economy, praising Zhejiang’s grassroots economy, entrepreneurial culture, openness and credibility during his keynote speech at the first World Internet Conference in 2014. During his five years in office as Shanghai party secretary, Shanghai saw the inauguration of the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s Science and Technology Innovation Board (STAR Market), and the construction of a Tesla plant.
As the future head of the Chinese government, Li also lacks experience and knowledge of the inner workings of the State Council.
Experience managing the coastal regions
Some businesspeople describe Li as pragmatic, business-oriented and down to earth, not to mention one who had worked closely with business leaders and MNC executives to drive openness and development during his time in Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shanghai.
However, only having coastal region management experience may also be a stumbling block for Li. China is a massive country facing uneven growth across regions with different social and cultural environments. It is untested as to whether the governance approach used in developed regions can be applied to the broader midwestern region.
As the future head of the Chinese government, Li also lacks experience and knowledge of the inner workings of the State Council. However, this may not be an issue for long as Li could be made a vice-premier when the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress meets from 26 to 30 October, giving him a four-month “internship” before he officially takes over.
Li’s political career clearly has the backing of the CCP’s top leader. Thus, how he handles the relationship between the government and the State Council will certainly affect the future positioning of the State Council and its governance approach.
... there was a feud between South Zhongnanhai (the headquarters of the Central Committee) and North Zhongnanhai (the headquarters of the State Council) over inconsistencies and different views on economic policy.
Greater cohesion in Zhongnanhai
During Li Keqiang’s ten years as Chinese premier, the CCP’s “core” was restored and the general secretary achieved “one position as the highest authority” (定于一尊), thereby diminishing the influence of the State Council. During this period, it seems there was a feud between South Zhongnanhai (the headquarters of the Central Committee) and North Zhongnanhai (the headquarters of the State Council) over inconsistencies and different views on economic policy.
Such feuds are unlikely to occur in the Li Qiang era. It is expected that the future State Council will focus more on policy implementation rather than decision-making. Going by the close Li-Xi relationship, Li is expected to faithfully implement the top leader’s decisions.
However, this also implies that the upper echelons run the risk of groupthink, and it might be difficult to correct errors if policies go off course.
Viewed positively, this will ensure that policies from the highest level of the Central Committee are fully implemented. However, this also implies that the upper echelons run the risk of groupthink, and it might be difficult to correct errors if policies go off course. But optimists believe that Li will enjoy greater influence than his predecessor. Xi’s trust in him could also grant him some room for manoeuvre to spearhead more business-oriented policies.
The State Council under Li Qiang’s leadership is set to undergo a transitional phase before a new style is established. While the impact of this new style on the economy and people’s livelihoods is not yet known, it is certain that the State Council under Li will not act as a buffer between North and South Zhongnanhai — any policy mistake will affect both arenas.
For Lianhe Zaobao's special reports on the 20th Party Congress, click here.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “中国国务院将开启李强时代”.
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