Xi Jinping side-lined Li Keqiang, the ‘liberal reformist’ ex-premier

“Heaven is looking at what humans are doing. The firmament has eyes.” This is what Li Keqiang, the former premier of the People’s Republic of China, had to say while bidding farewell to 800 or so senior government officials, after serving as China’s number two leader for ten years. Li had already exited the ruling Communist Party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee last October, even though he was yet to reach the retirement age.

Many interpreted his remarks as digs at Xi Jinping, China’s President and general secretary of the Communist Party. The controversial clip went viral on the internet but was not aired by the State-run China Central Television. Li’s words signalled a deep sense of frustration. Analysts rued that the quick-witted, outspoken, and rousing intellectual delivered a flat, tepid farewell speech that praised Xi as “the core of the party leadership” as many as seven times within an hour.

Once seen as a potential top leader, Li was deliberately kept out of the limelight for years so as not to outshine Jinping. At the same time, Xi accumulated increasingly more powers. Li’s replacement, Li Qiang, is considered a Xi crony, best known for his ruthless imposition of months long Covid lockdown in Shanghai. This marks China’s shift from putting skilled technocrats at the helm to favour those who are closer and more loyal to Xi. 

A promising start

Li Keqiang hailed from a humble background. The English-speaking politician studied law and economics at the prestigious Peking University before working with the Communist Youth League, an organisation that prepares university students for party roles. He later returned to the university to pursue a Master of Economics and a Doctor of Philosophy in Economics.

By 1998, he had become China’s youngest governor in the densely populated central province of Henan. During this time, he crushed reporting on an AIDS outbreak in the province. Reportedly, illegal blood-buying rings were pooling plasma and reinjecting it into donors after removing the blood products. Allegedly, this was being done with the help of local officials. The Li Keqiang administration hushed the scandal, prevented victims from seeking compensation, and harassed civil society members who were working on the behalf of the affected.

Despite this controversy, Li Keqiang was known as a capable and intelligent bureaucrat. From 2008 to 2013, he acted as the vice-premier under former premier Wen Jiabao, handling economic development and macroeconomic management.

When he became the premier in 2013, many hoped that Li Keqiang, who was steeped in Western ideas, would be a liberal reformer. Despite his credentials and subsequent popularity, however, he largely failed to make effective use of the platforms he was given. Even during China’s three-year Covid-19 crisis, he remained practically invisible.

Tug of war

Although Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping never disagreed publicly, it was evident that the two were not in a close partnership. In fact, as per analysts, a decade-long “north-south war” played out in Beijing’s Zhongnanhai quarters, which house offices of China’s top officials.  The south courtyard is the stronghold of the Jinping-led Communist Party, while the north courtyard is home to the State Council, China’s government formerly led by Li Keqiang.

From 2012 onwards, the south courtyard started to gain an upper hand. In 2016, People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, published an article criticising “Likonomics”, the economic stimulus measures led by Li Keqiang. Likonomics once commanded international attention, but such criticism weakened the State Council. Then in 2018, many of the State Council powers were shifted to Communist Party institutions. During this time, Xi Jinping appeared to have favoured economic adviser Liu He and head of the legislature Li Zhanshu over Li Keqiang, leaving the economist with hardly any influence.

Li Keqiang’s inability to stop Xi Jinping in this regard is considered by many as one of his main faults. Experts believe it was possible for Li Keqiang to stop Xi Jinping from “subverting” the spirit of the “reform and opening” policy launched in 1978, but he showed little courage. Now, a further shift to boost the Communist Party’s control in state entities is being deliberated upon.

Future tense

Li Keqiang would be remembered for promoting private economy and foreign investment, while Xi Jinping’s main focus has been state ownership. Many say Li Keqiang entered the Communist party with a noble ambition to contribute towards his country but was stifled by its rigid red-tapism. His exit has put a question mark on the future of the country’s private sector as well as the wider economic reforms that he was championing. Experts are of the view that Li Keqiang might be the last premier of his type, whose economics-focused approach towards governance contrasted with Xi Jinping’s ideological tone and authoritarian tendencies. For now, it seems the State Council is headed for a rapid decline in its powers while Chinese political machinery seems to be ever more guided by Xi Jinping loyalists and sycophants.