Li Keqiang primed to succeed
The state media's unusually extensive coverage of Li Keqiang's European tour showed the vicepremier remains well positioned to succeed Wen Jiabao as premier despite rumours to the contrary, analysts said.
State broadcaster CCTV featured several lengthy and detailed reports on Li's nine-day trip during its prime-time news programmes, while the overseas edition of People's Daily published front-page updates on his meetings with European leaders.
China Daily similarly listed Li's travels as 'top news' for four days after the vice-premier's departure on April 26 and prominently displayed photographs of events he attended.
Li (pictured) also made front pages in Hong Kong, where the Beijing-friendly Hong Kong Commercial Daily kept readers informed of the tour with headlines 10 days running.
The coverage sent a strong but subtle signal that Li is emerging as a figure of political stature. In an opinion piece published in the London-based Financial Times on the eve of his May 3 visit to the European Union headquarters in Brussels, Li promised help to alleviate the continent's sovereign debt crisis, but called for reduced EU controls on hi-tech exports to China.
Chen Ziming , an independent political expert based in Beijing, said the media campaign appeared carefully orchestrated by top party leaders, such as Wen and President Hu Jintao , to introduce Li as a player on the international stage ahead of the generational power shift due later this year.
'The tone and intensity of the publicity of Li's tour is as high as [Vice-President] Xi Jinping's official visit to America earlier this year - even higher than Wen's [recent European visit],' Chen said.
'They want to deliver a conspicuous political message that Li will surely be the country's next government head.'
Chen said party leaders were 'brushing aside speculation and rumours, such as former premier Zhu Rongji's purported proposal to elevate Vice-Premier Wang Qishan to the position'.
Chen added: 'I've never doubted Li Keqiang's rise as the next premier. As the overseas response to his performance in the European visit was largely positive, I would say that his promotion has been further secured.'
Because of his close ties to Hu, Li was once tipped to succeed him as president. It later became apparent that Xi, a 'princeling' son of a former vice-premier, was the favourite to claim the top job, leaving the post of premier for Li.
More recently, rumours surfaced suggesting that Li faced strong competition for that office from Wang, a fellow vice-premier.
In addition to machinations attributed to Zhu, an American diplomatic cable released by the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks revealed that Singapore's former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew talked up Wang in a 2009 exchange with then US deputy secretary of state James Steinberg.
'Li Keqiang may not get the premiership and the party is looking for a way to keep Wang on past his 65th birthday until he is 70,' Lee said, according to the cable.
The delicate succession process is set to begin this autumn with Xi's replacement of Hu as Communist Party secretary general.
Seven of the nine current members of the supreme Politburo Standing Committee are expected to retire after the handover.
Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a political scientist at City University, said the propaganda campaign was definitely intended to build up Li before the power shuffle.
'It's Li's turn, following the huge effort to trumpet Xi as a future leader,' Cheng said. 'It obviously shows that Li has become the front runner to succeed Wen.'
Cheng said Li's visit to Moscow during his European tour complemented Xi's visit to the United States in February.
'Both Washington and Moscow are Beijing's major counterparts on the diplomatic front,' he said.
The foreign media has portrayed Li as a prudent, but low-profile technocrat who has made few remarkable achievements or ground-breaking speeches, although it has been noted that he is the sole doctorate degree-holder on the standing committee, and its youngest member.
Last month, for example, Time magazine named Xi for the third time in its list of the world's 100 most influential people, ranking him 63rd.
At 74 was Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang - another contender for the inner circle of power.
Li's name has never appeared on such a list and he remains largely unknown. Observers are unsure whether he supports reform, a return to past practices or the status quo.