Li Qiang, China’s new premier, has long been Xi Jinping’s man

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When he was the head of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai, Li Qiang climbed into the driver’s seat of a Tesla Model 3 alongside Elon Musk, who drew a smiley face on the car’s screen to match Li’s broad grin.

The moment in 2018 was important for both men. Tesla had just become China’s first fully foreign-owned automaker, giving Musk a major foothold in the world’s largest auto market.

For Li, who recently took over as head of the leading financial center, the American automaker’s decision to open a factory in Shanghai was a win for a national policy to encourage technological innovation in electric vehicles.

Within months, the tremendous popularity of cheaper, China-made Model 3s among local buyers would spark a wave of investment interest in finding the “Chinese Tesla.” Fierce competition ensued between rivals such as Nio, Xpeng and BYD. Sales of electric cars exploded.

If the 63-year-old is confirmed as prime minister by China’s parliament on Saturday, he is expected to repeat a similar feat nationally. Tasked with ensuring economic momentum, one of Li’s top priorities is to ease investor unease after three years of turmoil from Covid lockdowns and political crackdowns on business and industry.

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Li has a track record of working with private companies. However, Chinese political experts widely agree that he was chosen for the role largely because of his long-standing personal relationship with Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader in decades.

The question, they say, is whether Li’s close relationship with Xi makes him a yes man with little leeway to challenge the supreme leader, or a trusted confidante with the ability to push back when his policies go too far.

The 69-year-old Xi, who served as general secretary of the Communist Party for more than a decade, began a non-normative third term last October by replacing the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, which sits at the pinnacle of political power in China, with loyal lieutenants occupied. Li was selected for the No. 2 role over two candidates, Hu Chunhua and Wang Yang, who had more experience but maintained a network of relationships beyond Xi’s immediate control.

Proximity to Xi does not mean an official “brings important data to him or urges him to change policies for the good of the country,” said Victor Shih, who studies elite Chinese politics at the University of California, San Diego.

But reports that Li was pushing for a faster end to the unpopular “zero-Covid” policy suggest he may be someone with a “rather unique willingness to nudge Xi in a particular direction,” Shih said.

Shortly after being named deputy, Li used his position to push for faster easing of the tough coronavirus restrictions that had sparked nationwide protests, according to a Reuters report earlier this month. By then, China was already losing control of the virus as more transmissible variants overwhelmed mass testing and quarantines.

In late December, amid a wave of critical infections and deaths that swept emergency rooms and hospital crematoria, Li chaired a meeting of the party’s top Covid response team that called for an end to border restrictions, according to the log published by Sing Tao Daily Hong Kong newspaper.

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As head of the Chinese government, he will implement some of Xi’s most important — and difficult — policy initiatives: campaigns to fight inequality and “shared prosperity” for the masses, while delivering so-called Sputnik breakthrough moments in critical technology areas like artificial intelligence, renewables, and more energies and microchip manufacturing.

Li wasted no time in restoring confidence among China’s struggling entrepreneurs. In early December, he chaired a meeting with China’s top industrial association, where he pledged “relentless” efforts to create a good environment for private enterprise.

Such promises may not reassure international companies, who are increasingly wary of investing in China after three years of sporadic lockdowns, ongoing trade and technology tensions with the United States, and a spate of crackdowns on Chinese entrepreneurs under Xi.

Close observers of Chinese politics doubt Li’s ability to soften some of Xi’s harder tendencies, partly because he has always played a supportive role in the relationship. They note that this is the first time since the Mao Zedong era that China’s proxies have not had an independent network, reversing efforts in recent decades to introduce some degree of power-sharing at the top of the party.

Li Qiang’s predecessor as premier, Li Keqiang, who presented a final annual work report on Sunday, was sidelined as Xi took direct control of areas previously thought to be the purview of the State Council, China’s cabinet and its premier.

The elder Li, once seen as a contender for the top position, built his own power base by rising through the ranks of the Communist Youth League. A relative economic liberalizer, he has at times appeared to disagree with Xi’s messages, including how to balance economic growth and coronavirus control.

However, the younger Li’s career has been closely linked with Xi over the past two decades. In 2004, shortly after becoming the youngest-ever Party chief of Wenzhou, a city in Zhejiang province famous for capitalizing on China’s export boom and becoming a world-leading manufacturing center for shoes, eyewear and electronics, he became the Appointed General Secretary of the Provincial Party Committee.

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That made him the de facto chief of staff and spent hours traveling with Xi, who was in his first term as provincial party chief. Li would help Xi write speeches or formulate policy initiatives for China’s future leaders.

Almost a decade later, Li followed in his mentor’s footsteps, becoming governor of Zhejiang and then gradually working his way clockwise around the Yangtze River basin to lead Jiangsu province and Shanghai as party leader.

This tour of China’s entrepreneurial heartland saw him forge strong relationships with business leaders such as Jack Ma, founder of online retailer Alibaba.

In 2016, Li wrote in a foreword to a book by Alibaba executive Wang Jian, saying that both Wang and Ma are people he likes to talk to and who have made significant contributions to Zhejiang’s development.

At each location, Li demonstrated how he supports innovative business ventures. In Jiangsu, he tried to revitalize a ailing manufacturing fair dedicated to the Internet of Things. In 2019, he opened an artificial intelligence conference in Shanghai, where Musk and Ma discussed the potential threat to humanity posed by runaway machine superintelligence.

Li has expressed his fascination with new technologies that could revolutionize business and society. He told state media in 2008 that he was an early adopter of email in the 1990s and regularly frequented online discussion forums. At various points he has publicly endorsed the book Homo Deus, in which historian Yuval Noah Harari explores how technology will revolutionize the future of civilization, and the 1999 film Bicentennial Man, about a robot who wants to be human.

But promoting cutting-edge technologies is another area where the prime minister’s role has been weakened. Areas of emerging technology that were once considered the purview of the State Council are increasingly being handed over to party committees, limiting the government’s ability to make independent decisions.

The biggest unknown is that unlike his predecessors, when they took the job, Li was never in charge of a central-level administration or had to coordinate between different agencies, said Yu Jie, senior research fellow on China at Chatham House, a British think tank. The role will test his ability as a deal broker, she said.

A government restructuring plan to be passed at this week’s legislative session will further expand direct party involvement in the quest for “self-reliance” in critical technologies and fundamental research by establishing a central commission to oversee policy-making in this area.

While the State Council remains the main implementer of economic policy at a practical level, areas such as cybersecurity, energy and big data are increasingly being dictated directly by the party. “The prime minister has less power because many of the important policies are decided by party-leading groups and commissions, most of which are headed by Xi Jinping,” UC-San Diego’s Shih said.


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