The New York Times has published a profile of new Chinese Premier, and Politburo Standing Committee member, Li Keqiang, which suggests we may be in store for another Wen Jiabao, a leader who consistently pays lip service to the idea of reform but is rarely able to take genuine action.
Arguably China’s best-educated leader, Mr. Li speaks confident English. In contrast with the previous round of leaders who were steeped in leaden party doctrine and Soviet economic theory, Mr. Li has been exposed to a rich palette of liberal thinking. And like his predecessor Wen Jiabao, he often displays a common touch with ordinary Chinese.
Mr. Li, 57, will be hemmed in by the stability-obsessed conservatives who dominate the seven-seat Politburo Standing Committee slated to effectively run China for the next five years.
Wen was often regarded by the foreign press as having his reformist zeal constrained by the conservative nature of his colleagues. However, this interpretation has been challenged by some notable Chinese dissidents, including Yu Jie, whose book China’s Best Actor accused Wen of being a “puppet” for the regime.
Wen’s reformist credentials are arguably stronger that Li’s. Wen served as an intimate aide to Zhao Ziyang, China’s most liberal Premier, who was kept under house arrest after he sought to stop Deng Xiaoping sending in the tanks during the incident that must not be named.
Li reportedly was liberalised while studying at Peking University in the late 1970s following the Cultural Revolution:
At night, after the university had shut off the dorm lights, he and his classmates would gather under street lamps to debate the merits of constitutional law and the downsides of continuous class struggle. Some of his friends would later end up in jail for their role in the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square.
“We all have a hope that he hasn’t abandoned the beliefs of his youth,” said Chen Ziming, a political commentator who was active in the experimental student elections in 1980 that Mr. Li supported. “Perhaps we are hoping for too much.”
Even if Li does not prove to to be the political reformer many hope, he may push for further liberalisation of the Chinese economy.
On economic matters, he has demonstrated a keen understanding of complex theory; more recently, he has been a vocal advocate for economic restructuring and the importance of a level playing field for private business. He was the primary sponsor of a World Bank report issued in February that warned of crisis if China failed to break the stranglehold of its giant state-run enterprises.
The optimists — and there are precious few these days — say Mr. Li may just be waiting for the right opportunity to reveal his true political stripes. “He may be a bit naïve, but I think he’s sincerely honest,” said his former classmate Mr. Wang, who was jailed for more than four years after the government branded him a “black hand” behind the 1989 protests. “I still believe that he has a bottom line.”