China’s new second most powerful man, Li Qiang, has attracted attention for his almost empty record in public management. While he is known to be a successful businessman, his political career contains fewer achievements than his predecessor, Li Keqiang.
It is both surprising and not so surprising since it is an open secret that Xi Jinping wants to eliminate all rival factions within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to consolidate his leadership; for that, he has to take whatever measures are necessary.
Li Qiang’s assumption of the Standing Committee means that there is fighting within the party leadership and that Xi is surrounding himself with allies to continue to extend his power.
Who is Li Qiang
Although he will take office in March 2023, Li Qiang became the next premier on October 23 without having all the previous experience required for a political career in the CCP.
Without having been vice premier, with barely four years as CCP secretary for Shanghai, and without having administered regions with low economic resources, Li Qiang was, in one way or another, Xi’s loyal right-hand man for at least 20 years.
Shanghai is known to have been a hotbed of top national leaders. Li Qiang was appointed Shanghai’s party chief in 2017 as part of a strategic move to put him in a key position to bring his power base into the party’s top ranks.
However, while China’s new premier may not have a great political career within the CCP, within the country, he is recognized as a pro-business pragmatist. His profile allowed him to network with tech tycoons such as Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, and he is rumored to have been a go-between when Xi cracked down on the holding company last year.
In his bond of loyalty to Xi, Li Qiang bore the sky-high cost of the Shanghai blockade earlier this year, implementing to the letter the “zero Covid” approach endorsed by Xi despite the consequences. His rise then can also be taken as a sign that Xi values unconditional loyalty.
Li Qiang’s loyalty to Xi is historic: between 2004 and 2007, when Xi was the top party chief in Zhejiang province, Li was also his right-hand man in the chief of staff role. After Xi became China’s top leader, he promoted Li Qiang first to the governor of Zhejiang and then to party secretary of Jiangsu province, promoting his loyalist to gather a modicum of regional government experience and the credentials he needed for more critical positions.
Who is Li Keqiang
In contrast, his predecessor Li Keqiang’s political career ran through all the administrative rungs in the CCP up to his current position as outgoing premier. At the time, he became a strong candidate for China’s presidency as a protégé of former supreme leader Hu Jintao, which generated a rivalry with his then-opponent, Xi Jinping.
Li belongs to the party’s populist or “tuanpai” faction and the China Youth League, while Li Qiang is close to the rival faction of sons of top leaders to which Xi belongs. It is easy to infer that a man from a rival faction is considered a threat to the top leader’s third term.
Why change one Li for another Li
Li Qiang was appointed, and Li Keqiang was removed from the Politburo Standing Committee list on the day of Hu Jintao’s scandalous exit from the 20th National Congress.
There is no doubt that removing Li Keqiang and positioning as his deputy leader someone he trusts, is tantamount to resolving old rivalries, as well as suppressing any potential opposition and consolidating Xi Jinping’s power.
Outwardly, the CCP leaves no gaps to assume that there is infighting and claims that Li Qiang is not afraid to push the boundaries of CCP rule and that he is a loyalist who will implement Beijing’s policies effectively and aggressively when necessary.
Ultimately, even if Li Qiang had possessed the necessary credentials for a CCP political career, it might not be as valuable as the loyalty and trust that enshrined him as China’s second most powerful man.