Newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Qiang made his debut before the media in a carefully coordinated press conference on 13 March, in which he immediately set the tone and targets for the new government: to turn the grand blueprint drawn up during the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s 20th Party Congress into an implementation scheme.
The Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao administration officially ended in 2013, but in the decade that followed, the Chinese government could not be accurately defined as the Xi Jinping-Li Keqiang administration. On the contrary, with power concentrated in the CCP Central Committee, the influence of the State Council was already weakened when Li Keqiang was premier.
During Li Qiang’s stint in Zhejiang years ago, he was an aide to then Zhejiang party secretary Xi. Now, as the second-in-command in the Central Committee, people are curious about how Li will run the State Council.
Implementing the blueprint
This was revealed within the first few days of Li Qiang taking the oath of office. In his first press conference, he was careful to keep to the boundaries of his office and positioned the new government as an “implementation team”.
In talking about the goals and priorities of the new government, Li said, “Regarding the important issues that are of interest to the people, the 20th Party Congress report has provided clear answers,” and that the new government will turn the blueprint drawn up at the 20th Party Congress into reality.
On this year’s economic policy, he said, “As for the specific economic policies, the Central Economic Work Conference last year already laid out a comprehensive plan.” He also quoted Xi Jinping seven times throughout the press conference.
This means that in terms of general direction, the implementation team will keep in step with the “designer”.
On 14 March, Li Qiang presided over the first State Council executive meeting, which continued to give clear signals of being faithful executors. The meeting emphasised that the State Council is first and foremost a political office and has to “have a clear cut view about politics, a deep understanding of the significance of the ‘Two Establishes’... and achieve the ‘Two Upholds’”.
The meeting also mentioned that to do its job well, the State Council has to uphold the authority of the CCP Central Committee and focus on centralised leadership as a fundamental political discipline and rule. It must also consciously align itself with the CCP Central Committee’s major goals, to ensure that its plans are implemented without compromise.
While he did not spell it out, by defining the “implementation team” for China’s economic blueprint, Li Qiang gave a clear response to doubts about the new leadership team’s function and decision-making powers. This means that in terms of general direction, the implementation team will keep in step with the “designer”.
But does it mean that the implementation team has no autonomy or value on its own? Of course not. In building a house or carrying out renovations, the designer alone is not enough. After the designer comes up with the blueprint, it has to be passed along to a capable, experienced team who will realise it.
Restoring confidence the biggest challenge
While the implementation team will not change the blueprint, attention will still be paid to how they will implement policies. Li’s response to questions posed during the press conference on Monday offers a glimpse into his style, such as his emphasis on the private sector and foreign investment, his down-to-earth and pragmatic attitude, and his close relationship with the grassroots.
At the same time, he also urged all levels of government departments and civil servants to be mindful of their duty to serve the people and to “be creative in performing our duties”. In other words, the implementation team’s hands are not entirely tied when executing the blueprint.
Li’s implementation team begins work amid challenging times. The three-year-long pandemic has dealt a big blow to the Chinese economy, which only grew 3% last year. This year, China has set a growth target of “around 5%”. Although the outside world may see this as a rather conservative goal, the combination of internal and external challenges cannot be ignored. Even after China abandoned its zero-Covid policy in December 2022, many entrepreneurs are still cautious about investing.
Li went to great lengths to alleviate the concerns of private entrepreneurs and foreign investors, and inject confidence into all sectors.
People who paid attention to Li’s press conference will observe that he spent the most time talking about economic issues, and the word “confidence” was mentioned in almost every international media coverage of the press conference.
Restoring confidence is the biggest challenge that China faces this year, and Li went to great lengths to alleviate the concerns of private entrepreneurs and foreign investors, and inject confidence into all sectors.
Evidently, Li was most detailed when addressing the question regarding the confidence of private enterprises. He said, “Indeed, there were some incorrect discussions about private entrepreneurs last year, which made them feel concerned.” Although he asserted that discussions involving the future of China’s private sector are “incorrect”, he is the first senior official to openly acknowledge that controversies indeed exist in the country’s private sector.
In a bid to boost the confidence of private enterprises, Li stressed the policy of “two unswervinglys”, ensuring that the government will “foster a market-oriented and law-based business environment in keeping with international standards, treat companies under all types of ownership as equals, protect the property rights of enterprises and the rights and interests of entrepreneurs in accordance with law”, while standing at “a new starting point”. His brief mention of “a new starting point” also offers much food for thought.
In terms of opening up to the outside world, Li cited specific numbers to prove that China remains a popular destination for global investment. To reassure foreign investors, he proclaimed that regardless of how the external situation may evolve, China will stay firmly committed to pursuing the basic state policy of opening up.
During his stints in Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shanghai, Li already held a business-friendly and pro-foreign investment attitude. By giving private enterprises and foreign investors a confidence boost at the beginning of his premiership, Li is conveying the government’s determination to stabilise market confidence.
The emergence of a business-friendly premier with a good track record in working with local governments has made some observers cautiously optimistic about policy adjustments in the future. But proclamations and verbal assurances are certainly not enough to restore confidence, as private enterprises and foreign investors await a detailed implementation plan.
In the face of a myriad of problems, it is not practical for a newly formed “implementation team” to immediately come up with a new policy initiative. But as the saying goes, “A new broom sweeps clean.” A specific “implementation” plan to restore confidence should still be introduced sooner rather than later.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “李氏“施工队”开工”.
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