Incoming Chinese premier seen as cautious friend of democracy

 

Beijing

Li Keqiang, the man slated to become China's next premier, is described by several former classmates and associates as a cautious political climber who moved up slowly through the Communist Party's bureaucracy while quietly maintaining friendships with pro-democracy advocates.

Li's ties to known reformers have given some people here hope that once installed in the Chinese government's No. 2 position — a promotion that is expected to be formalized at the conclusion of the party congress next week — he might become an inside advocate for changing the country's autocratic, Leninist system.

But friends and former associates also said that Li was always reticent when speaking, rarely revealing much about his personal views — leaving them to only guess that he shares the reform agenda. "He's the kind of person whose mind you can't really read," said Dai Qing, a democracy activist who was jailed for nearly a year after the 1989 student protests.

China's outgoing premier, Wen Jiabao, also was seen by many here as a reformer who in recent years began publicly advocating for more accountability and less corruption in China's Communist-run government. But without allies, Wen became an increasingly isolated voice for reform, unable — or unwilling — to push through his agenda. Some of Li's friends and associates now wonder if he will suffer the same fate.

Li is described as an extremely intelligent self-taught speaker of English and a loyal Communist Party member who gave up a rare opportunity to study abroad when the party asked him to stay in China to work organizing students at Peking University as a top official in the Communist Youth League. It was at the university that Li made friendships with many outspoken pro-democracy advocates, some of whom were jailed or went into exile after the 1989 military crackdown at Tiananmen Square.

But some said he is not ruthless enough for the party's internal maneuverings — a fact that some colleagues said may have relegated him to the No. 2 job, and not the presidency, which will go to the current vice president Xi Jinping.

Unlike Xi, a so-called princeling whose father, Xi Zhongxun, was a Mao-era military hero and later a governor and vice premier, Li comes to the top of China's power structure without a revolutionary pedigree.

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 entered Peking University, China's most prestigious, in February 1978. Yang Baikui, who was an international politics student there, worked with Li for one year while at the school, translating an English book, "The Due Process of Law," by British jurist Lord Denning. The book was brought to China by a professor, Gong Xiangrui, then one of China's few British-trained lawyers, who inculcated his students in the ideas of Western-style liberalism and constitutional law.

"He learned a lot from the book he and I translated," Yang recalled. "I'm not sure about democracy. But I'm sure he believes in constitutional government. And also the rule of law."

Li had little formal English training. But Yang and others recall how Li diligently carried a stack of small notecards, held together with an elastic band, with English words on one side and the Chinese translation on the other. He would study the cards while waiting for the bus or standing in line at the school cafeteria. He became so proficient that in 2011 he stunned listeners at a Hong Kong University event by breaking protocol and speaking for two minutes in fluent English.

After finishing Peking University, Li began working in the Communist Youth League while Yang became active in the pro-democracy movement that swept through China in the 1980s. The movement was crushed when Deng Xiaoping ordered troops to disperse students from Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters. Yang was jailed for 11 months and then expelled from the Communist Party.

Yang said he has not spoken with Li since they met at the Communist Youth League office a few days before the 1989 crackdown. But he said Li always "asks about my situation" and has other mutual friends from their school days convey his greetings.

"Some of his friends can still be regarded as liberal. Li Keqiang will still discuss politics with them," Yang said. "The main difference between him and the 1980s dissidents is how fast or how slow China's democratization should be. And how many steps it should take before China is democratized."

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.

"Li Keqiang is a product of the early 1980s, which was the era of enlightenment in China," Li Datong said. "I always have high expectations for Li Keqiang, but his power is also very limited."

Several other of Li's former colleagues and classmates agreed with that assessment.

"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."

He Qinhua, another law school classmate, said Li was likely to understand better than other Communist stalwarts the growing public demands for more accountability.

"Li is not a conservative guy," He said. But he added, "On political reform, the premier is not the one that can make the final decision. It's the party general secretary." Li, he added, "can do more in economic reform."

Li's doctoral thesis is in economics, and he has written more recent articles focused on China's industrialization and how the shift to urbanization would improve agricultural conditions, leaving fewer farmers who were more productive. He has also written about the importance of building a stronger social welfare system.

Li is also a realist. According to confidential U.S. diplomatic cables published by the group WikiLeaks, in 2007 he told then-U.S. Ambassador Clark T. Randt Jr. that economic figures coming out of China were mostly "unreliable."

Li's rise has not been without controversy. In Henan, where Li became governor in 1998, he has been criticized for not taking steps to prevent the spread of the AIDS epidemic to hundreds of thousands of villagers who were contaminated after donating blood through a government program.

Most of the infections happened before Li was governor. But one critic, Chen Bingzhong, a 79-year-old former head of China's National Institute of Health Education, wrote an open letter that appeared on overseas Chinese websites in September calling Li "unsuitable to be the leader of a country."

Tao Jingzhou, another Anhui native and law school friend of Li's who now works for an American law firm in Beijing, recalls sending a half-joking note to Li after his appointment as Henan governor. "Now you can take care of Middle China," he wrote. "I hope one day you will take control of the Imperial state."

Now with his friend being elevated to premier, Tao said, "A lot of people have great expectations that things will change."

- - -

Wang Juan and Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Delegate Telesales Executive - OTE £21,000 uncapped

£16000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: High quality, dedicated Delegat...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Consultant - School Playground Designer

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Traffic Planner

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As the successful candidate you...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Designer - Graduate Scheme

£17000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Join one of the UK's leading de...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor