Premier Li Keqiang Confirms He Will Step Down From Role At End of Term

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang quietly announced that he would step down from the premiership at the conclusion of his second term in March of 2023. His departure from the role is constitutionally mandated and does not preclude him from remaining on the Politburo Standing Committee, where real power resides, during the upcoming 20th Party Congress scheduled for autumn of this year. Li’s announcement was made during a press conference with Chinese and foreign media outlets to mark the conclusion of the annual National People’s Congress in Beijing. Bloomberg News reported on Li’s disclosure and his likely political trajectory

The country is preparing for a twice-a-decade Communist Party congress in the second half of this year in which top party posts will be reshuffled. While Xi [Jinping] is expected to stay on for a precedent-breaking third-term as leader after removing presidential term limits in 2018, authorities have yet to comment publicly on his plans.

“I’m confident that under the strong leadership of the CPC Central Committee, with comrade Xi Jinping at its core, with strong support of various sectors, and especially with the joint hard work of the Chinese people across the country, China’s economy will be able to overcome difficulties,” Li said. “We will be able to achieve all the major goals and tasks for economic and social development set for the whole year and lay a due, solid foundation for the development of the country in the future.” 

Li also serves as the No. 2 member of the Politburo’s supreme Standing Committee, a position he is young enough to retain even if he steps down from the premier’s job. Until Li’s promotion in 2012, the No. 2 party position was held by then-NPC Chairman Wu Bangguo while the No. 3 position was occupied by then-Premier Wen Jiabao. [Source]

Li’s press conference was much less dramatic than his predecessor Wen Jiabao’s final meeting with the media, which coincided with the denouement of the Wang Lijun affair. In 2012, Wen Jiabao warned that in the absence of further political reform, the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution could play out yet again—a veiled reference to factional infighting over the Party’s next leader. No such succession drama is readily apparent this year. The Chinese constitution was amended to abolish the two-term limit on the Presidency, and Xi Jinping is widely expected to remain in power for a third term as President. 

In a somber moment during an otherwise staid press conference, Li made an oblique reference to Xiaohuamei, the trafficked mother of eight who was kept shackled by her husband in Fengxian, Jiangxi Province. “The recent incident involving gross violations of women’s rights and interests is deeply distressing and we feel indignant about it,” Li said. “[…] Perpetrators of the trafficking of women and children must be brought to justice and prosecuted to the full extent of law.” Li’s comments during the press conference elaborated on an earlier address given to legislators in which he criticized official laxity in the face of serious violations of women’s rights. “[Officials are] often out of touch with reality and go against the will of the masses. Some adopt a one-size-fits-all and only-for-show style in policy implementation … Some ignore serious violations of the rights and interests of the masses and seriously neglect their duties,” the premier said. At the Associated Press, Huizhong Wu reported on how legislators at the Two Sessions engaged with Xiaohuamei’s case and the issue of human trafficking in China:

State media reported that at least half a dozen proposed legal reforms on the issue were brought by members of the National People’s Congress and its consultative body, which are holding their annual sessions this week in Beijing.

[…] “But I think they are missing some important angles,” [Feng Yuan, co-founder of Beijing Equality, a group that focuses on gender-based violence] said, because the proposals she saw have been too focused on the buyers’ criminal penalties.

[…] “They don’t want this case to suck up all the air,” said Dali Yang, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. “So there’s clearly an interest in, ideally, resolving it in a way that it would disappear.”

[…] “It’s distressing that this remedy is purely about punishment, and not about social change,” [said Johanna Ransmeier, a professor at the University of Chicago who studied the history of human trafficking in China.] [Source]

Li also addressed China’s COVID policy—and the mainland government’s expectations for Hong Kong’s pandemic management. In February, Xi Jinping issued “important instructions,” a phrase exclusive to Xi that indicates officials must implement them with the utmost seriousness, on Hong Kong’s pandemic prevention plan, ordering that “all necessary measures” be taken to combat the city’s outbreak. But low vaccination rates among the elderly and the impossibility of implementing mainland-style “zero-COVID” protocols have led to a devastating death toll in that city. Hong Kong’s seven-day rolling average is 38 COVID deaths per million residents, the highest such rate recorded anywhere in the world during any period of the pandemic. Images of corpses in body bags stacked beside COVID-patients’ sickbeds shocked observers in Hong Kong and around the world. During his press conference, Li acknowledged the seriousness of Hong Kong’s outbreak and pledged the central government’s support. Yet an analysis published by CSIS’ Trustee China Hand blog holds that China is unlikely to rethink its “dynamic zero-Covid” policy, even in light of the situation in Hong Kong

At the end of 2021, the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection concluded that China’s “dynamic zero-Covid” policies had proved cost-effective by isolating affected communities and allowing others to operate normally. The latest Government Work Report praised the successful implementation of control measures and did not include any adjustments to current policies. Moreover, as far as we can tell, none of the roughly 6,000 representatives of either the National People’s Congress (NPC) or Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing for the annual sessions said anything about Covid that would put them out of step with the official line. The runaway number of cases in Hong Kong has not disrupted this framing in the least. Beijing’s response, instead, has been to tell local Hong Kong officials to “shoulder their responsibility and uphold their oath of office” to get the outbreak under control. Although there may be internal debates or discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of zero-Covid and potential options during small group meetings, they are occurring entirely outside our vision.  

Our expectation still is that China is unlikely to abandon zero-Covid before late this year, until after the 20th Party Congress and when there is a credible domestic mRNA vaccine ready to be widely distributed across the country. Pressure may begin to mount, not from slowing growth, but from watching much of the rest of the world safely resume normalcy, including extensive international travel. That sense of distinctive growing isolation may prod Beijing to more quickly approve modest adjustments, such as creating targeted “closed loop” systems, with shorter quarantine periods than is currently the case, for business travelers and their own international students. [Source]

Li also addressed Sino-American relations, cautioning: “​​Now that the door has been opened, it shouldn’t be shut again, still less should there be decoupling.” 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s historic trip to China, which triggered the two countries’ rapprochement. The relationship has nosedived as of late. Ukraine has been a particularly contentious issue. China has amplified Russia’s baseless claims that the U.S. is funding secret bioweapons labs in Ukraine, while the U.S. has leaked accusations that Russia has asked China for military help and that China “responded positively.” During his Two Sessions press conference, Li Keqiang sidestepped a question on China’s relationship with Russia, saying only, “On Ukraine, indeed the current situation there is grave, and China is deeply concerned and grieved.” Li spoke out against Western sanctions, which he said have already damaged Chinese firms and might have a further negative impact on the global economy. A column in the CCP’s official newspaper People’s Daily under the oft-used official pen name “Zhong Sheng” went a step further, squarely blaming the United States for the current “Ukraine crisis.” David Bandurski of China Media Project, who translated the column, noted that it accuses US media and “certain US politicians” of “[using] the Ukraine issue to fabricate and spread false information in a way that recalls the dishonorable history of the US side and the way it has used rumors to wage wars.”


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