The spotlights of the XVIII CCP Congress were lit for the Party’s new leader, Xi Jinping. It was a fitting tribute to the second most powerful man in the world, China’s guide for the next ten years. The new Secretary of the organization has a loaded mandate: chosen by unanimous vote, he is the head of a political office that will lead more comfortably, consisting of seven members instead of the previous nine. Xi will also be free from the shadow of his predecessor Hu Jintao, who unexpectedly left him the presidency of the Military Commission. That important investiture even took the spotlight from the selection of the new Prime Minister, who will assume his position next March when his nomination is ratified during the annual meeting of the Chinese Parliament. Li Keqiang is therefore the new Premiere of China, number two in the Politburo, in theory more powerful than even Wen Jiabao, who was number 3.
There were no surprises in the selections of the Congress. Both Xi and Li had already been picked back in 2007 and their only task was to stay out of trouble until their official nomination. They succeeded, and the promises were kept. In addition, his management of the financial crisis earned prestige points for Li’s career, who adeptly carried out his mandate as vice-premiere while avoiding any dangerous transitions for the country. The next head of the executive – the State Council – has a traditional but not insignificant pedigree. He represents both continuity and the promise of change at the same time.
Li Keqiang was born in Anhui in 1955, a backward agricultural province in the Shanghai hinterland, but he is Pekingese by adoption. Unlike almost all of his colleagues, Li is not an engineer. In fact he studied law (with a concentration in constitutionalism) and specialized in economics. He is the youngest of the seven permanent members of the Politburo and is the best English speaker. He experiences the Cultural Revolution, although without much drama; for three years he worked in the fields, like all the other students of his generation, and therefore had an easier time than the generation of “princelings,” the sons of the Communist “nomenklatura” that were persecuted in those years.
Li now shares power with these princelings, even though his path originates in the other great forge of leadership: the management school and Communist Youth League of China, which he led from 1993 to 1998. There he earned himself a reputation as a young intellectual open to the new demands of the 1980’s, and he was on the front lines of the student petitions before the protest met its tragic epilogue at Tiananmen Square. His career in the Party brought him all the way to the governorship of Henan, where he came down with an iron fist when a scandal erupted involving AIDs patients, with thousands of people forced to sell their blood and then dying from infected needles.
Li’s biography contains elements of both conservatism and innovation, but it would be a shortsighted vision to seek elements in his past as a way to predict the future. His work will be pragmatic and oriented exclusively towards China’s best interests. Like all of China’s leadership, Li has proven to be adaptable and able to take surprising initiative when the urgency of the moment calls for it. Expecting reforms from his administration may be naiive, but all the elements for proceeding with change are there if the situation, as it seems, requires it. The possibility of reforms lies in their urgency. The real problem Li Keqiang has to solve is whether he understands the need to change and whether the rest of the leadership will allow him to.