Li Qiang, Xi Jinping’s loyal lieutenant | International
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It is October 23 and in the golden room of the Great Hall of the People his face is inscrutable. She hardly gesticulates, she doesn’t move her feet. Erect and immobile, like a soldier in the sentry box, he dresses with the rigor of communist commanders, in a dark suit and red tie. He wears glasses, but is not dyed, a detail that distinguishes him from a good number of Chinese Communist Party cadres. He is one of the seven chosen ones who have emerged from a golden gate, have passed through immense columns and have taken the stage in the footsteps of the leader, Xi Jinping, for their presentation to society as members of the next Standing Committee of the Politburo, the pinnacle of power. Chinese.
The act marks the culmination of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China. And the seven chosen have entered the room following a strict order that marks the position that they will foreseeably hold from March, when the political transition ends: Xi, in the vanguard, will be the president and he, who is second, will be with all probability the next prime minister. His name is Li Qiang, he is 63 years old and very few hit the pools with his meteoric rise.
A former collaborator of Xi, until now he served as party secretary in Shanghai. If some expected a reopening of the country and an abandonment of the strict zero covid policy, his appointment raises doubts: the president has appointed as his lieutenant the architect of a confinement that locked up 25 million people in the spring for more than two months, unleashing a wave of anger and fatigue among the population and gripping the economy in the financial heart of the country.
But his profile is not clear either. His hard gaze and his wide jaw make up a mask in which some read another sign of the reconfiguration of power to suit Xi, surrounded by loyalists to exercise an unprecedented third term; Others, on the other hand, hope that he will act as a counterbalance, call him a “friend of business” and reiterate his penchant for openness and reform. This was the role reserved until now for the current premier Li Keqiang, but his figure gradually became jibarized in Xi’s shadow to the point that he is considered one of the least weighty prime ministers of recent decades.
In an interview in 2013, Li Qiang boasted of the entrepreneurial spirit of the people of his native province, dynamic Zhejiang, of which he had just been appointed governor. Many of them, he told the Chinese economic magazine Caixin, were merchants who “earned their first yuan by shining shoes or stuffing blankets”; he praised “deregulation” as a formula “for the development of private companies and entire industries.” And he said: “The biggest success of China’s reform and opening-up campaign has been to encourage people to innovate and take initiative.”
It was another era. Not yet disgraced were the founders of tech giants like Jack Ma, whose company, Alibaba, the Chinese Amazon, is also headquartered in Zhejiang, in the capital Hangzhou. Li rubbed shoulders with him at internet summits and encouraged citizens to follow suit. But today Ma is a reflection of Xi’s “new age” toughness and Beijing’s drive to crack down on digital corporations. The businessman has practically disappeared since he criticized global banking rules and the Chinese regulatory system in 2020 and Beijing decided to stop the IPO of Ant Group, the largest digital finance company in the world, part of his emporium.
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A member of the party (and also a businessman) assures that Li is a man close to Xi – “they trust each other” -, whose profile is diluted in a “strong central government” that this source considers “necessary” in a country huge and overcrowded like China. “I think they can form a good team, without disputes”, which will make decision-making more “efficient” within a “strong group” in which the position of premier will not have a particularly prominent role. He also trusts that the country will maintain the opening path of the last decades. “The golden years”, he calls the first decade of the two thousand.
Li studied agricultural mechanization, began his career working in an electromechanical irrigation station and later in a tool factory, became secretary of the Communist Youth League, joined the party at age 24, and slowly rose through the vast pyramid of power occupying different positions in his province. He also completed his academic training: in the 1990s he studied management engineering and turn of the century world economics at the Central Party School in Beijing and an MBA at a Hong Kong University.
In 2004 the meeting took place: he began working as Xi Jinping’s chief of staff in the Zhejiang Provincial Party Committee, where the future president of the country was then stationed. Just three years later, Xi is chosen as Hu Jintao’s successor at the helm of China, a position he assumed in 2012. And that also puts Li in a race to the top, whose moves reflect “Xi’s intention to help reinforce [sus] leadership credentials,” according to a Brookings Institution biography.
In 2013, with Xi already crowned, Li was promoted to governor of Zhejiang. In 2016 he was promoted again to party secretary for Jiangsu province and finally, in 2017, he was appointed as party secretary in Shanghai: the same post Xi held in 2007 before being recalled for higher assignments. “He is one of the most trusted protégés,” according to Brookings.
“His record is of a strong business orientation, focused on economic growth, innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Bettina Schoen-Behanzin, vice president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, and head of this organization in Shanghai. representing some 1,800 European companies. According to her, Li has been one of the few senior officials who has defended Western RNA vaccines. “It remains to be seen if he will prioritize business interests, the economy and China’s opening up, or if he will align himself with the vision of the zero covid dynamic of Xi,” he adds.
Among the milestones of the politician in Shanghai, the relationship forged with the American businessman Elon Musk stands out. Tesla opened its first overseas plant in the Chinese financial capital in 2019, at a time when relations between Washington and Beijing were in an abyss after Donald Trump landed in the White House. The one in Shanghai is today the largest Tesla factory. It went up in just one year, has the capacity to produce some 750,000 vehicles per year and managed to keep production afloat during the closures due to the covid, placing thousands of workers who slept in facilities designated for the situation in a closed circuit system. .
In Schoen-Behanzin’s opinion, the two-month lockdown was a “big blow to Shanghai’s international reputation.” Now that he has to come back, he is not very sure where the wind will blow: “The new lineup of leaders, all loyal [a Xi]suggests that policies oriented towards economic growth will take a backseat to those focused on ensuring stability and control”.
Li has left his mark on those who lived through that long spring confinement. “He is a transparent man”, defines him Celvin Wong, a pseudonym of a Shanghai-based publicist who spent more than 70 days in confinement. “What has he done? Any. Just follow orders.” Even before Li was elevated to number two, Celvin assured that the bolt in the city, after the failed attempt to live with the virus, was due to his appetite “to achieve a promotion and enter the inner circle of the party.” “He had to be very strict to show his loyalty to whom we all know, the big one,” Celvin said without pronouncing the leader’s name.
loyalty to Xi
Bruce Dickson, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and author of The Party and the People (The Party and the People, Princeton University Press, 2021), believes that his way of reaching the top is a reflection of how the party has lost the idea of ”meritocracy” of previous decades. With his management of the covid, many thought that he would be fired. But he was rewarded, and he does not believe it was “a reward for his achievements” but “for his loyalty to Xi”, he acknowledges in an online meeting with correspondents.
Among Li’s critics, there are those who affirm that he lacks experience in the command posts of the central government, in Beijing, but others defend that having passed through three great economic vectors of the country -Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shanghai- gives him a vision privileged, and they believe that their closeness to Xi will allow him to convey to him first-hand the economic reality of China.
Dickson does not believe, however, that there is room for a counterbalance, much less that Xi is going to promote “independent thought” in his circle. “Li has not reached the position he is in by challenging his old friend, but by humoring her. I don’t know to what extent he is going to have autonomy if he becomes prime minister”. We will have to be vigilant, he adds, and see if the president returns to the premier the economic powers that he used to exercise —and that he “usurped” Li Kechiang, according to this analyst.
That gesture could be a signal as to whether the president is seeking to share power or if he has only placed the six men in suits who followed him onstage in the golden room “as showpieces.”
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