Unsurprisingly, and without journalists in the room, the Chinese National People’s Congress approved this Saturday the appointment of Li Qiang as the new prime minister, a very close ally of President Xi Jinping who has the mission to revive the economy ahead of him.
Like most of the nominations formalized during the session of the Chinese Congress, the choice of Li, 63 years old, as prime minister was a decision taken in advance with which the deputies limited themselves to agreeing. Li received 2936 votes in favour, eight abstentions and three against.
The possibility that Li would become the second figure of the Chinese state had gained strength in October when he was appointed “number two” of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party, the top of the hierarchy of the one-party hierarchy that has governed China since 1949.
Li Qiang’s career is identical to that of practically all the leaders who rose in the Chinese state bureaucracy, although with a path very close to Xi, who since strengthening his powers and his position in the regime has increasingly surrounded himself with allies . The day before, Xi had been unanimously elected as President, after having already been re-elected general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, breaking with the informal rule that prevented the indefinite accumulation of mandates for Chinese leaders.
With a background in agricultural engineering, Li was Xi Jinping’s chief of staff during the period in which the future Chinese leader was governor of Zhejiang province, a position that he himself would eventually hold years later. In 2012, Li became head of the party in Jiangsu province and for the last five years he has been secretary of the CPC in Shanghai, one of the most relevant positions in the Chinese state machine and seen as a launching pad for the national plan.
It was in Shanghai that Li put in place one of the strictest regimes to combat the spread of covid-19, with the introduction of very long-term mandatory quarantines that ended up generating criticism and protests. The strict application of the so-called “covid zero” policy in the largest Chinese metropolis, as advocated by Xi, despite the high economic and social costs, is seen by analysts as evidence of Li’s loyalty.
“Shanghai’s quarantines have shown that whenever the need arises, Li Qiang will do whatever Xi wants,” he said. Financial Times analyst Neil Thomas.
As usual, it will be up to the Prime Minister to implement government policies in the coming years, especially in the economic area. In this field, analysts point out that the challenges are of high difficulty.
Li “inherits a job with so many headaches, starting with the real estate crisis, the debt burden, US sanctions, aging China and the feeling of demoralization”, he told the FT the director of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, Jörg Wuttke. “This guy has his work cut out for him and the easy-to-harvest rewards have already been picked up by his predecessors,” he added.
At the launch of the session of the National Congress, the Chinese Government set the economic growth target at 5% for 2023, the lowest value in recent decades.
“The heavens have eyes”
Li Qiang’s rise to the post of prime minister also marks the end of Li Keqiang’s tenure after ten years. Described as a reformist when he came to power, alongside Xi, Li quickly found himself with no room for maneuver to make the political and economic changes that many, especially in the West, believed could put China on a gradual path of liberalization.
What has transpired over the past decade has been largely the opposite. The rise in the tone of nationalism that eventually paved the way for the reinforcement of Xi’s powers and the consequent resurgence of state authoritarianism made the position of reformers like Li Keqiang untenable.
“Li was deliberately sidelined by Xi in an openly humiliating manner. He didn’t have much of a chance to have any impact,” he told the guardian the director of the China Institute of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, Steve Tsang.
In a farewell message published on social networks, but which was ignored by the state media, Li left an enigmatic sentence that has been interpreted as a warning to the man who rose to power with him, but who will remain indefinitely and with an unprecedented power of this Mao Tsetung: “While the people work, the heavens watch. The heavens have eyes.”