Who is Chinese Premier, Li Qiang?

By Richard McGreggor 13 June 2024, 6:00PM

Who is Chinese Premier, Li Qiang?

That’s the question the Australian government from Anthony Albanese down will be trying to answer during Li’s four-day visit to Australia, the first by a Chinese leader of his seniority since 2017.

Li’s titles alone in theory give him great stature and weight. As Premier, he sits atop the State Council, or cabinet, which in turn makes him head of the country’s sprawling government apparatus.

More importantly, he ranks number two in the ruling communist party’s most powerful body, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee.

Under Xi Jinping, however, they don’t make premiers like they used to.

After Xi came to power in 2012, China’s chattering classes tracked the relative weight of the rival power centres of the Central Committee of the ruling communist party, and the State Council, or the government. In shorthand, the Central Committee was headquartered near the south courtyard of the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in the heart of Beijing. The State Council was near the north courtyard.

The perennial south courtyard-north courtyard, or party-versus-government, feud was symbolic of the rivalry between competing governing ideologies. Very broadly, it pitted more political control by the party against a growing technocratic elite in government ministries.

Xi decisively won that battle. He has strengthened the party apparatus at the expense of a once, slightly more autonomous government. As the saying goes, politics is in command under Xi. That means a stronger state, which is less practical and more ideological.

The outgoing Premier in 2023, Li Keqiang, indirectly but unmistakably criticised Xi when he left office in early 2023. “China’s opening-up policy would not change, just as the course of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers will not be reversed,” he said.

Li, who died of a heart attack later in 2023, served two five-year terms as Premier from 2013 until 2023. During that time, he was marginalised by Xi on economic policy which as premier he should have had carriage of. His supporters were furious, but powerless to do anything about it.

Li Qiang ascended to the high office of Premier, but, given what had happened to his predecessor, he arrived with low expectations. If Li Keqiang was marginalised, why should he do any better?

Li Qiang had one advantage over Li Keqiang. The former is a Xi loyalist. The latter was not. But over the past year, in some respects, the expectations for Li Qiang in office have become lower still. Though he is formally ranked just behind Xi in the Politburo’s inner-circle and is considered loyal to his leader, Li is not regarded as the second most powerful person in the country.

China analysts generally pinpoint the fifth-ranked man (and they are all men) on the standing committee, Cai Qi, as the most powerful person after Xi. That is not because Cai, a former party chief of Beijing, has any independent political personality of his own, nor any achievements in office to match those of Li, but because he has been handed the role of Xi’s enforcer.

Earlier this year, Xi cancelled the annual press conference which the premier has traditionally held for decades at the close of the annual session of the National People’s Congress. It is a high-profile event, televised live and watched closely in China and overseas, and would have provided Li Qiang with an enormous stage.

The message delivered by Xi’s cancellation of the event was crystal clear. The south courtyard gets to speak. The north courtyard does not.

But such analysis may underestimate Li’s influence.

Unusually for a Chinese leader, Li’s work experience before heading to Beijing was almost entirely in and around the wealthy coastal province where he was born, Zhejiang, which borders Shanghai. In Zhejiang, Li spent years working in the cities of Wenzhou and Hangzhou. He was also party secretary of neighbouring Jiangsu province, based in Nanjing. Before he moved to Beijing, he headed Shanghai, China’s commercial capital.

These provinces, and cities, are among China’s wealthiest because their economies depend on the private sector and foreign trade. That background has given Li a unique level of experience for a Chinese leader in working with private business.

Xi cracked down hard on several high-profile entrepreneurs in his second term. Famous business leaders, such as Jack Ma of Alibaba, were forced out of their companies for crossing the leadership.

Over the past year, Xi has been reversing course, in part at the urging of Li, who has been at the forefront of efforts to reassure entrepreneurs, and in part to lift the Chinese economy out of its slump.

Li was also a central player in China’s looming global dominance of electric vehicles, something that the United States, Japan and Europe fear will wipe out their car industry.

In this case, Li harnessed foreign entrepreneurs to boost Chinese industry. As party chief in Shanghai, Li negotiated with Elon Musk to bring Tesla into the city, the first time China had permitted a foreign company to make cars without a local partner. The Chinese learned much from Tesla and the supplier ecosystem which clustered around its advanced Shanghai mega-factory. That, in turn, helped Chinese private companies to build world-beating companies of their own.

Musk famously asked Li to get the Tesla factory built in two years. In the end, it was built in less than half the time.

Li’s time in Shanghai had dark moments. As the Covid pandemic unfolded, he was ordered by Beijing to lockdown the city to prevent the spread of the virus. Many residents of the city, used to the comforts of middle-class lifestyles and the freedom to travel, were deeply scarred by the experience.

Li reportedly has a personal connection to Australia. According to Cheng Li, of Hong Kong University, Li’s daughter studied in Australia. But that is not something any Chinese leader would talk about in public.

This article was first published on Lowy Institute’s blog site The Interpreter. Richard McGregor is Senior Fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute, Australia’s premier foreign policy think tank, in Sydney.

By Richard McGreggor 13 June 2024, 6:00PM
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