His face inscrutable, Li Qiang stood motionless, like a sentry, in the Great Hall of the People. Like other Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders, he was dressed in a dark suit and red tie. His untinted eyeglasses seem to be only distinguishing feature from many of his CCP peers. On October 23, six men emerged from a gold door and climbed the Great Hall stage behind President Xi Jinping to be presented to the world as the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, the nation’s top leadership.
It was the culminating event of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, and the seven men entered the Great Hall in rank order of the positions they will assume in March 2023. As General Secretary of the CCP, President Xi led the way, closely followed by 63-year-old Li Qiang, who will most likely become China’s next prime minister, a meteoric rise to power that surprised almost everyone.
A close Xi ally, Li has served as the party secretary in Shanghai for the last five years. Anyone who was expecting China to abandon its strict zero-Covid strategy will probably be disappointed by Li’s ascendancy, since he was the man tapped by Xi to lock down a city of 25 million people for more than two months last spring. The move unleashed a burst of anger among Shanghai residents and paralyzed the economy in the country’s financial nerve center.
But the man remains an enigma to outsiders. For some, his stern demeanor and square jaw represent Xi’s powerplays to secure an unprecedented third term. Others see him as a pro-business counterbalance to hardliners and point to his rhetoric of openness and reform. Outgoing Premier Li Keqiang was once seen as a leading reformist, but his influence has waned in Xi’s shadow to the point that he is considered one of the least influential prime ministers in recent decades.
In a 2013 interview with Caixin, China’s leading business and financial news outlet, Li Qiang boasted of the entrepreneurial spirit of Zhejiang, his dynamic home province in eastern China. He had just been appointed governor of the province and touted the enterprising Zhejiang merchants who “earned their first yuan shining shoes.” He said deregulation was an important stimulus for private enterprise and industrial development. “The biggest success in China’s campaign of economic reform and opening has been the measures to encourage innovation and initiative.”
It was a different time. Tech titans like Jack Ma, the founder of ecommerce giant Alibaba (based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang), had not yet fallen from grace. Li rubbed shoulders with Ma at tech conferences and encouraged the Chinese to emulate him. But Ma is now a symbol of Xi’s “new era” and of Beijing’s campaign to subjugate China’s tech industry. He is rarely seen in public now after the Chinese government blocked an initial public offering (IPO) for Ma’s Ant Group, the world’s largest financial technology firm, after he openly criticized global banking laws and China’s regulatory system in 2020. Chinese authorities are now planning to fine Ant Group over $1 billion, according to a Reuters report.
One prominent party member and businessman says that Li and Xi trust each other, because both advocate the strong central government that is needed in a huge, overpopulated country like China. “I think they make a good team and won’t have many disputes,” he said, which will make for more efficient decision-making and relegate the prime minister to a weaker role. He is also confident that the country will continue to open up the economy, a journey that began in the “golden years,” as he called the early 2000s.
Li studied agricultural mechanization at Zhejiang Agricultural University (now Zhejiang Wanli College), and began his professional career working in an electromechanical irrigation station. He became secretary of the local Communist Youth League and joined the CCP when he was 24. Li slowly worked his way up the colossal power pyramid and gained various party leadership positions in his province. In the 1990s, he pursued graduate studies in management engineering, and attended the Central Party School for on-the-job graduate studies in world economics from 2001 to 2004. He received an executive Master of Business Administration from Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 2005.
Li first met Xi Jinping in 2004 when he started working as Xi’s chief of staff at the Zhejiang CCP Provincial Committee. Three years later, Xi was elected First Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, consolidating his position as President Hu Jintao’s eventual successor. When Xi became president in 2012, Li rode his coattails to the top, demonstrating “Xi’s intention to help bolster Li’s leadership credentials,” according to a Brookings Institute profile.
Li was promoted in 2013 to governor of Zhejiang, and promoted again in 2016 to party secretary of Jiangsu province. Just one year later, he was appointed party secretary of Shanghai, the same post Xi held before ascending to loftier roles. “Li Qiang is one of Xi Jinping’s most trusted protégés,” says the Brookings profile.
“He has a strong pro-business track record that’s focused on economic growth, innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Bettina Schoen-Behanzin, vice president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, an organization that represents 1,800 European companies. Schoen-Behanzin says that Li has been one of the few senior officials to defend western-made RNA vaccines. “It remains to be seen whether he will prioritize business interests, the economy and China’s economic opening, or whether he will strictly adhere to Xi’s zero-Covid policy.”
While he was governor of Shanghai, Li developed a relationship with American entrepreneur Elon Musk. In 2019, Tesla opened its first overseas plant in Shanghai at a time when bilateral relations were tense during the Trump administration. Built in just one year, the Shanghai factory is now Tesla’s largest, and has the capacity to produce 750,000 vehicles a year. Tesla was able to keep its Chinese production lines rolling during Covid shutdowns by housing thousands of workers in special, closed-loop facilities.
Schoen-Behanzin’s says the two-month lockdown last spring was “a big blow to Shanghai’s international reputation.” As the city begins to rebound, she is not quite sure which way the wind will blow. “The new leaders are all loyal [to Xi], which suggests that economic growth policies will take a back seat to stability and control measures.”
Celvin Wong (not his real name), a Shanghai-based publicist who spent more than 70 days in Covid confinement last spring, says “Li’s motives are transparent. What has he done? Nothing – he just follows orders.” Celvin claims that after a failed attempt to coexist with the virus, the Shanghai lockdown was the predictable result of Li’s quest “to get promoted and enter the party’s inner circle. He had to show he could be tough and prove his loyalty to you-know-who – the big guy,” said Celvin, obviously reluctant to say the name.
Loyalty to Xi
Bruce Dickson, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University (Washington, DC) and author of The Party and the People (Princeton University Press, 2021), believes that Li’s climb to the top shows that the CCP is no longer the meritocracy it used to be. Many thought Li would be fired for this handling of the latest Covid crisis, but instead he was rewarded. In an online meeting with reporters, Dickson said it wasn’t a reward for achievement, but for his loyalty to Xi.
Li’s critics point to his lack of experience in Beijing’s central government, while supporters laud his experience in three of China’s economic powerhouses – Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shanghai. They believe that Li’s close relationship with Xi will enable him to convey a first-hand view of China’s economic reality to the president.
Dickson doubts that anyone can act as a counterweight to Xi, or that the president will encourage “independent thinking” in his inner circle. “Li has not reached his current position by challenging his old friend, but by going along. I don’t know how much autonomy he will have if he becomes prime minister.” When Li does assume that position, Dickson says we will have to wait and see if the president gives back the economic authority he “usurped” from Premier Li Kechiang. If Xi does that, it could signal a greater willingness to share power. If not, perhaps the parade of six men in suits who followed Xi onto the Great Hall stage was just for show.