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October 14, 2022 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1658

Xi Jinping's Politburo – Part 3: Li Keqiang

October 14, 2022 | By Chris King*
China | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1658

Introduction

Ahead of the Chinese Communist Party's upcoming 20th National People's Congress, which will take place on October 16, 2022, MEMRI is publishing a series of reports about the individuals comprising the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the CCP's 19th Central Committee, which was elected in 2017 during the 19th National People's Congress. These men, the most powerful people in China, are Chinese President Xi Jinping's closest advisors.

This installment in the series is about Li Keqiang, who has been premier of the People's Republic of China since 2013. Nominally, Li Keqiang is the second highest-ranking political figure in China after President Xi Jinping; he is part of the informal Tuanpin Communist Youth League faction, which opposes Xi Jinping.

For the previous reports in this series, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1653, about intellectual Wang Huning, and MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1656, about Li Zhanshu.

Biography

Li Keqiang was born on July 1, 1955 in Hefei, in China's Anhui Province. An economist by profession, he holds a PhD in economics and a Bachelor of Law from Peking University's Faculty of Law and School of Economics. He joined the CCP in 1976.

He was among the first law students admitted to Peking University after China instituted reforms that reinstituted college entrance examinations in 1977. At the university, he studied under Li Yining and other scholars, and headed the university's student union.

After graduating, he remained at the university to work for the Communist Youth League Committee, soon joining the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League. In 1993, he became secretary of the Communist Youth League's Central Secretariat.

His prominence in the Youth League made him an important figure in the Tuanpai, an informal political faction headed by Hu Jintao, leader of the CCP and president of China between 2002 and 2012 until he was succeeded by Xi Jinping. The Tuanpei is also known as the "Youth League faction" because most of the government officials belonging to the faction come from the Communist Youth League.

In 2007, during the 17th National People's Congress, Li was elected to the Standing Committee of the CCP Central Committee's Politburo. At the time, he was the youngest member of the Standing Committee, and in 2008 he was elected vice-premier of the state council. At the same time, he served as the deputy secretary of the CCP's Leading Group of the State Council. He was re-elected to the Standing Committee in 2012, and again in 2017, when he became Premier of the State Council, second in rank only to General Secretary and President Xi Jinping.

Earlier in his political career, Li Keqiang held major party and government posts in the Henan and Liaoning provinces.

Currently, Li also holds senior positions in the Central Institutional Organization Commission, the National Defense Mobilization Committee, the National Energy Commission, the Central Committee for Comprehensively Deepening Reform, the Central Commission for Overall Law-Based Governance, the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, the Central Finance and Economics Commission, and the Central Network Security and Informatization Commission.

Li's wife, Cheng Hong, is an English professor at the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing.

Li Keqiang vs. Xi Jinping


Li and Xi.

As noted, Li Keqiang belongs to the Youth League "faction," which opposes Xi Jinping. In comparison to Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang has a superior education, partly because he was admitted to Peking University after the 1977 reforms that reinstated college entrance examinations. Xi Jinping attended university before the reforms, when academic standards were lower. Li also has greater political seniority than Xi Jinping, having been a member of the CCP's Central Committee since 1997, while Xi was only an alternate member at that time.

However, Xi Jinping comes from a more politically influential family than Li Keqiang. Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, served on the Politburo's Standing Committee and had a good relationship with Mao Zedong. As a party "princeling," Xi naturally had political clout that Li, with his ordinary family background, did not.

Nevertheless, Li's closeness to former CCP General Secretary Hu Jinto – Xi Jinping's predecessor and the leader of the Youth League "faction" to which Li belongs – partially compensates for his lack of family credentials. Li comes from the same province as Hu, and Hu had personally selected him as his protégé.

It is noteworthy that since coming to power, Xi has gutted much of the power and influence of the premier of the State Council, the position held by Li Keqiang. Thus, even though Li Keqiang is nominally second in rank to Xi Jinping, his political power is not commensurate with his rank.

The Future Of Li Keqiang's Career

Xi Jinping has very firm control over the CCP, and he is highly likely to retain his position as President of China and General Secretary of the CCP after the upcoming 20th National People's Congress. But since this would only be his third term in office and he still has some opposition, Xi may not yet be able to fill all the Party's positions with people loyal to him. As such, the next Standing Committee may be transitional in his view, as he continues to consolidate power. Hence, Xi's opponents may still have a place in the CCP's highest echelons as he continues to maneuver politically.

Li Keqiang has served two terms as premier of the State Council and has announced that he will be stepping down from the position, but this does not mean that he will not hold a position on the next Standing Committee. Li is 67 years old, under the threshold of 68 at which officials have traditionally been expected to step down, although this expectation has not been strictly adhered to by Xi Jinping and his supporters.

Even though Li Keqiang is an opponent of Xi Jinping's, he is not a particularly skilled or bold politician, and he is widely considered the weakest premier the country has ever had, with his greatest advantage being his political seniority. In addition, Xi and his camp may consider Li to be less of a threat than younger and bolder members of the Youth League faction, such as Hu Chunhua. They therefore may prefer to let sleeping dogs lie and to leave the relatively harmless, nonconfrontational, and cooperative Li as Xi's primary opponent on the Standing Committee, rather than taking the risk of allowing bolder opponents take his seat on the committee.

Thus, it likely that Li Keqiang will remain on the Standing Committee following the 20th National People's Congress, even though he is stepping down from the premiership. It is noteworthy that if this happens, he will not be the first premier to have stepped down yet remain on the committee.

* Chris King is Senior Research Fellow for the MEMRI Chinese Media Studies Project. King was an active participant in the student protests in China in 1989.

 

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