Before the start of the 20th party congress this week, few people outside China had heard of Li Qiang, let alone that he was about to become China’s second most powerful leader.It was not until Sunday, when the Communist party chief of Shanghai followed Xi Jinping on to the stage at the Great Hall of the People, that it became obvious that the 63-year-old has been anointed as the second-ranking Politburo Standing Committee member. He is also poised to become China’s next premier at the annual legislative session in March when Li Keqiang steps down after two terms.
Shanghai has historically been a breeding ground for top national leaders, but unlike most of his predecessors who had been promoted to premiership, Li has no experience as a vice premier. He also lacks the broad range of regional administration experience such as leading an impoverished province – a prerequisite for cadres wishing for top jobs in the party.
Li’s reputation also took a beating over his handling of Shanghai’s two-month Covid lockdown, which sparked public anger, rare protests and battered the city’s manufacturing and export-heavy economy. Before the revelation on Sunday, China watchers had expected another candidate, Wang Yang, a former vice premier, to ascend to the premiership. But there was one problem, he is from the rival China Youth League faction, which analysts say Xi sees as a threat to his rule.Li’s appointment demonstrates that Xi places loyalty and trustworthiness above all else, according to analysts. Although Li has had experience in regional economic management, it was ultimately this factor that prompted Xi to hand-pick him as his number two.“He is someone close to Xi and has his trust,” said Prof Jean-Pierre Cabestan, senior researcher at Paris-based Asia Centre. “Xi is now surrounded by “yes” men and there is no space for other rivals.”
Rise of the ‘New Zhijiang Army’
Li Qiang’s ties with the president go back for almost two decades. When Xi was Zhejiang province’s top party boss, Li was his chief of staff and his de facto top personal aide from 2004 until 2007, before Xi left for Shanghai’s top party post. After Xi became China’s leader, he promoted Li first to governor of Zhejiang and then to party secretary of Jiangsu province, providing him with the regional governing experience and credentials he needed for bigger roles.
Li, together with Cai Qi and Li Xi who also ascended to the powerful Standing Committee on Sunday, are part of the so-called “New Zhijiang Army” who worked under Xi in Zhejiang province – the economic powerhouse just south of Shanghai – during his rise to the top (Zhijiang is a poetic name for the greater Zhejiang region.) During that period, Li accompanied Xi on many work trips, edited his speeches and helped draft Xi’s policy direction.Xi appointed Li the party chief of Shanghai in 2017, as part of a strategic move to place his allies in key positions and bring his power base into the upper ranks of the party.As premier, Li will be the top official in charge of reviving China’s ailing economy, which has suffered under a stringent “zero-Covid” policy for nearly three years amid strained relations with the United States. Some hope that Li, a former party chief of his native Wenzhou – a private business hub in Zhejiang – will be able to steer China out of the economic troubles.
He is expected to focus on innovation and hi-tech industries, under Xi’s plan to develop these areas, as set out in his party congress work report. Li, who has presided over many foreign investments in Shanghai during his term, has been described by those who have met him as having a pro-business and pragmatic work style.As a trusted confidante of Xi, Li is likely to be given a freer rein to manage the economy than his predecessor Li Keqiang, who is seen by Xi as a threat. But analysts say Xi’s former aide is unlikely to ever defy him or over-assert himself.“The premier’s role in relation to Xi has changed into that of an executor of his decisions. What (Xi) needs is a strong implementer, and during the Shanghai lockdown, Li has proven himself as a loyal enforcer of Xi’s zero-Covid policy,” said Chen Daoyin, a former professor at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. Li loyally carried out Xi’s order for “zero Covid”, even when Shanghai’s protracted Covid lockdown sparked public outrage and exacted heavy economic cost. In the middle of the two-month lockdown, Li told cadres that they must “unswervingly implement the ‘zero Covid’ task” according to the spirit of Xi’s instructions.Willy Lam, a senior fellow at Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based thinktank, said Li knows very well that he owes his career to Xi, his patron.“Li has had no special political achievement to back him up, so he is very clear that he owes his position to Xi. So whatever Xi tells him to do, he will implement it. He would be very different from Li Keqiang … he has to follow Xi 100%,” Lam said.