Li Qiang, considered one of the trusted men closest to Xi Jinping, became China’s new prime minister on Saturday, a few months after he was promoted to number two in the Communist Party.
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At the Communist Party of China congress in October, the party leader in Shanghai bested two other candidates with more traditional skills for the job, in a powerful gesture that testifies to Xi Jinping’s placement of his allies in the Standing Committee, the highest echelon of power.
However, the prospect of Li Qiang, 63, getting such a high job appeared to be in jeopardy after his chaotic handling of a two-month lockdown in Shanghai last year, during which 25 million people in the city suffered. .
“If there is evidence (to show) that loyalty trumps merit in Xi Jinping’s China, Li Qiang’s promotion is one,” said Richard MacGregor of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia.
He adds, “Lee may be competent enough and could make a good prime minister, but it is hard to understand how he got there except through personal favors from Xi.”
In his own country, Li Qiang conveys the image of a friendly leader, as exemplified by Hu Shuli, founder of the economic media Caixin, who described him as “low-key and pragmatic” after an interview in 2013 when he was governor of Zhejiang Province (east).
As one of his colleagues in Zhejiang told local media in 2016, he is “particularly good at listening and integrating the opinions of all parties when making decisions.”
Although it is not unusual for a former Shanghai party chief to be promoted to a high party rank, Li Qiang has no experience at the central government level, unlike almost all previous prime ministers.
However, he had a rich career in local government: Li Qiang held important leadership roles in the wealthy coastal provinces of Zhejiang (east) and Jiangsu (east).
Crucially, he was Xi Jinping’s chief of staff when he was party leader in Zhejiang between 2004 and 2007.
His rapid promotions since then reflect the high level of confidence Xi Jinping has placed in him.
Chinese President Li Qiang parachuted into Jiangsu in 2016, after a corruption scandal led to the downfall of several provincial officials. He became party secretary in Shanghai the following year.
The Chinese premier heads the State Council, which is often described as the Chinese government. Its function is traditionally associated with the day-to-day administration of the country and the conduct of macroeconomic policy.
asks Neil Thomas, a China specialist with the Eurasia Group.
Li Qiang takes office at a time when the world’s second-largest economy is facing a sharp slowdown, weakened by nearly three years of an inflexible policy called “zero Covid”.
For 2023, the government has set itself a GDP growth target of “around 5%,” one of the lowest levels in decades.
According to some analysts, Li Qiang’s appointment should allow Xi Jinping to push a conservative economic programme.
The outgoing premier, Li Keqiang, an economist by training, saw his plans for economic reform hindered by the growing power of Xi Jinping.
For Steve Tsang, of the University of London’s SOAS China Institute, even if Li Qiang were the president’s “trusted lieutenant”, he would not be able to do as he pleased.
“Xi Jinping will give Li Qiang more space (than Li Keqiang) to lead the State Council,” said Tsang.
“On condition that Li Qiang do what Xi wants, without going beyond the fixed circumference.”
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