Li Keqiang: Liberal Background, Limited Leeway?

A master of keeping a low profile, China’s newly-nominated premier Li Keqiang is perceived by many as a cautious reformer. Cary Huang at South China Morning Post gives a detailed account of Li’s early years in Peking University where progressive thinking was in vogue:

A member of the first group of students admitted to university after late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping ordered the resumption of the university entrance exam in 1977, following the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, Li studied law under Professor Gong Xiangrui , an expert on Western constitutional law who had studied in Britain in the 1930s. Li followed that with a PhD in economics under Li Yining, the mainland’s market reform guru.

[...] Li reportedly plunged into campus politics as reformist ideas galvanised students, befriending freethinkers who went on to become dissidents in exile, and helping to translate The Due Process of Law by famed English jurist Lord Denning.

[...] Former classmate and prominent dissident Wang Jintao [sic], who has lived in exile in the United States since 1994 after being sentenced to 13 years in jail for supporting the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement, said Li was outspoken and quick-witted on campus.

[...] “On campus, Li Keqiang was a student with an active mind and sharp words,” Wang wrote in a memoir. “He has his own independent thinking and preferences. But he will not challenge authority on major issues. He is also a person who wants to have big personal accomplishments.”

In his discussion with delegates from Shandong Province during the 18th Party Congress, Li made his intention to push through reforms clear. From People’s Daily:

Li Keqiang said on Thursday that China should lose no time in deepening reform in key sectors and resolutely discard all notions and systems that hinder efforts to pursue development in a scientific way.

[...] Li noted China remains in an important period of strategic opportunities for its development, the period that is full of unprecedented risks and challenges.

Under such circumstances, he said, China should accelerate improvement of the socialist market economy and facilitate the change of growth model to complete the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects as well as deepen reform and opening up in an all-round way.

The Party needs to properly handle the relations between the regulators and the market and implement a more proactive opening up strategy to boost the momentum and vitality of development, he said.

Several of his classmates have expressed their hope that Li has not abandoned his early political beliefs. One of his classmates tells Jeremy Page at the Wall Street Journal that Li is believed to have “a clear understanding of the weakness of China’s legal system as many of his close friends are lawyers, judges and law professors”. Given his relatively vague political reform agenda, more believe Li will tackle economic reform as job number one. From Simon Rabinovitch at Financial Times:

He is also believed to have played a role in the China 2030 report authored by the World Bank and the Development Research Center, a think-tank under the Chinese cabinet, that recommended limiting the power of state-owned companies.

[...] “Li Keqiang will be more effective than Wen Jiabao,” said Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore. “Wen Jiabao tried to promote too many things – political reform, social reform as well as economic reform. Li Keqiang will be more focused.”

Some analysts, however, see Li Keqiang’s grassroots background as an obstacle for him to implement his reformist ambitions. From Keith B. Richburg at the Washington Post:

Li’s father was a mid-level county official — “a small potato,” said one classmate — in Anhui province, one of China’s poorest areas. And unlike Xi and the other princelings, whose upward path was eased by family connections, Li was admitted to Peking University on the basis of his scores on the national entrance exam, or “gaokao,” when it was first reinstated in 1977 after being suspended during the Cultural Revolution.

[...] Li Datong, who was fired as an editor of a China Youth Daily supplement for pushing the boundaries of official censorship, met Li Keqiang in the ’90s and considers him a reformer — even though, like others, he said the incoming premier’s hands may be tied by the system.

[...] “If we can expect any democracy, it will be democracy within the system, and Li will help Xi in doing this,” said Yan Huai, a former official with the Communists’ now-disbanded Young Cadres Bureau, who joined the 1989 protests and then left for the United States. “How far Xi walks will determine how far Li can go. He won’t walk in front of Xi. And neither will he lag behind him.”

As some analysts see his early liberal education and his fluent self-taught English as hints of his western-leaning political beliefs, other more skeptical observers are questioning his political integrity based on his dealing with the AIDS crisis in Henan. Christopher Bodeen at Associated Press wrote last week:

Li, to be promoted within the leadership’s top council after a pivotal party congress closes later this week and expected to take the economy-focused post of premier from outgoing Wen Jiabao next spring, was governor of the agricultural province of Henan in 1998 during an unusual explosion of AIDS cases.

Tens of thousands of people had contracted HIV from illegal blood-buying rings that pooled plasma and re-injected it into donors after removing the blood products. But Beijing hadn’t acknowledged the problem yet, and Li oversaw a campaign to squelch reporting about it, harass activists and isolate affected villages.

[...] “He just tried to escape from this crisis” at first, said Wan Yanhai, a prominent Chinese AIDS activist who fled to the United States with his family in 2010 following increasing police harassment. “He’s probably not a bad guy, but he’s not shown himself to be very capable of managing crises in a strong and responsible way.”

Andrew Jacobs at the New York Times also questions Li’s administrative capacity based on his unremarkable achievements as vice premier for the last five years:

As vice premier in charge of economic development, food safety and health care, Mr. Li has overseen an expansion of the medical insurance program. But his other signature project, which seeks to build 36 million low-cost apartments, has been criticized by some for poor planning and shoddy construction. And some analysts say his commitment to the commonweal has been tested by his brother’s role as the top official in China’s State Tobacco Monopoly Administration.

[...O]ne former official turned businessman thought it would probably take a crisis to compel Mr. Li and other leaders to embrace a substantial loosening of political and economic controls.

“I think in the end, events will force them to change, even if they don’t want to,” the businessman said. “Smart leaders will reform because they want to. Idiots will reform because they have to.”

See also a video on Li Keqiang, China’s “effective second fiddle?”, via CNN. See more on Li Keqiang via CDT.