'Teflon politician' perfect fit for fifth generation

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 March, 2005, 12:00am

Analysts will be focusing their attention on how President Hu Jintao places his men in key posts after becoming chairman of the state Central Military Commission next week - and looking for clues to the fifth generation of modern China's leaders.

Liaoning province party boss Li Keqiang is seen as the prototype for the fifth generation. Born in 1955, he will be at the right age to take the helm at the 18th Communist Party Congress in 2012, when Mr Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao bow out from the political stage.

Like Mr Hu, Mr Li rose through the ranks of the Communist Youth League and has paid his dues as party chief in the provinces. He has mastered the art of saying the right thing at the right time and staying out of trouble.

Mr Li was part of the first wave of students to attend university after the Cultural Revolution in 1978. He studied law at Peking University and made the first steps in his political career by using his oratorical skills to become head of the campus youth league in 1982.

Former college friend Wang Juntao, now a dissident exiled in the US, recalled that Mr Li deftly handled several waves of pro-democracy uprisings by students without alienating them.

But in May 1989, he appeared to have softened the rough edges of his youth and kept a low profile during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

After 16 years at the Youth League, Mr Li was sent to Henan in 1998 as vice-governor of the mainland's largest agricultural province. He was later promoted to governor and party boss.

In December he was moved to Liaoning, a rust-belt province undergoing rapid transformation.

Mr Li's fast-track career progression makes him stand out from his peers and he has attracted much media praise. But for some observers, he is most remarkable for being a 'Teflon politician' - nothing negative seems to affect his shining career.

After emerging unscathed from the 1989 pro-democracy movement, Mr Li was also unaffected by various problems in Henan, including its Aids epidemic and widespread counterfeiting.

His career also appears to have survived the mainland's worst coal mine disaster, which killed more than 214 miners in Fuxin city last month.

More media attention was guaranteed when Mr Li arrived in Beijing as head of Liaoning's delegation to the National People's Congress.

At an open session to discuss Mr Wen's Government Work Report, his remarks were full of flattery and political cliches.

He did not mention the Fuxin accident, although improving industrial safety was a theme of Mr Wen's report.

Keenly aware of the scrutiny he was under, Mr Li shunned publicity like the plague.

'I have an important function to attend to in the evening,' he said, hurrying out of the conference room after the session finished.

Observers say Mr Li embodies the best and the worst of prominent Youth League members - they are smart, quick, and skilled at speeches and party organisational work, but have never had to make tough decisions.

Additional reporting by Josephine Ma