Li Keqiang Assumes New Post with Talk of Reform

At his first press conference on Sunday, Premier Li Keqiang emphasized his support for policies which work to reduce the wealth gap in Chinese society, end excessive official privilege and corruption, and channel unnecessary government expenses to social welfare programs. From the New York Times:

“Corruption and the reputation of our government are as incompatible as fire and water,” Mr. Li told reporters at the Great Hall of the People.

Speaking on the final day of the legislative session that installed a new generation of leaders, Mr. Li vowed to ease impediments to private investment, rein in the powerful interests that dominate large sectors of the economy and scale back an unwieldy, intrusive bureaucracy that he acknowledged often frustrated entrepreneurs and citizens.

The new government, led by President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, will impose a moratorium on the construction of government buildings and reduce spending on official vehicles, public meetings and overseas travel, Mr. Li said. The government’s sprawling work force, he warned, would be trimmed to increase spending on social welfare.

“Reforming is about curbing government power,” he said in his opening remarks, which were broadcast live on television. “It is a self-imposed revolution that will require real sacrifice, and it will be painful.”

Specifically, Li mentioned the problems that accompany China’s rapid urbanization, according to the South China Morning Post:

“Urbanisation will usher in a huge amount of consumption and investment demand, increase job opportunities, create wealth for farmers and bring benefits to the people,” said Li, who began exploring the topic as a doctoral student at Peking University.

But he also cautioned that it was also a “complex systemic project” that must be bolstered with various reforms.

In carrying out the project, the government would have to consider the different stages of development between cities and regions, he said.

“Urbanisation is not about building big, sprawling cities,” he said. “We should aim to avoid the typical urban malady where skyscrapers coexist with shanty towns.”

Li also discussed ways to free up the market in China to allow businesses more leeway to operate. From the Wall Street Journal:

The 57-year-old Mr. Li also said the government should give markets greater room to operate, including allowing private businesses to compete on an equal footing with state-owned enterprises. In finance, the market would play a greater role in setting interest rates and the exchange rate, and companies would have greater access to funding through the bond and equity markets, he said.

“Talking the talk is not as good as walking the walk,” he said. “We need to pursue market-oriented reforms.”

The premier’s annual news conference is the only time the Chinese public gets to see the leader who steers the world’s second largest economy being quizzed by the media, even if the questions and answers are mostly scripted.

Mr. Wen had sought to portray an avuncular man-of-the-people image, although he had a somewhat stiff manner on the podium. Mr. Li has a more informal style, and a down-to-earth delivery that resonated on China’s social networks, where many noted his absence of official airs.

Some observers have noted that Li’s targets for reform are less ambitious, but more specific, than those of his predecessor, Wen Jiabao. From the Financial Times:

The key question is not whether a Chinese leader is a reformer – but rather what kind of reformer he or she is.

The contrast between Mr Li’s programme and that of Wen Jiabao, his predecessor, is illuminating. Mr Li’s agenda, which he outlined at the end of China’s annual parliament on Sunday, is more limited and more singular in its focus on economics. It also appears to be more concrete and therefore more achievable.

Overall, Li’s style is more direct and less florid than Wen Jiabao’s, and received mixed reviews, according to the South China Morning Post:

The performance gained Li mixed reviews among critics and internet users, with some saying that they preferred his down-to-earth manner to Wen’s more florid style, while others said Li’s remarks were “flat” and avoided touching on sensitive issues.

Li kicked off the two-hour press conference by vowing that he would remain loyal to the constitution.

He also did not recite any classical Chinese works, which Wen often referenced to describe his personal feelings.

The most notable remark by Li in summing up his philosophy was: “Follow the great way, put the people first and benefit everyone.” It is a line he said he has learned through life experience.

Read also:
Profile: Li Keqiang: a reform-minded premier” from Xinhua and “Li sets out strategic mission for next 5 years” from China Daily.