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