Li Keqiang

Li Keqiang: Scholar who passed up foreign study for party

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2007, 12:00am


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The political life of Li Keqiang began in a destitute village. In 1974, at the age of 19, Mr Li, a high school graduate from Hefei No8 Secondary School, shared the fate of tens of thousands of intellectuals at the time and was sent to work as a farmer in a rural brigade. Mr Li was sent to the Dongling brigade of the Damiao commune in Anhui province's Fengyang county, where he spent four years living and working with farmers and several other intellectual youths from Anhui and Shanghai.

The conditions in Fengyang were grim - not surprising, given that the place is best known for a song sung by beggars blaming drought for their poverty and starvation. But Mr Li, though very much an urban youth, coped well.

'He worked very hard. He was pretty good at farm work,' said Peng Jingshan , party secretary of Dongling village from 1958 to 2004.

Mr Li studied at one of Hefei's best secondary schools. His father was a middle-ranking cadre - an 'old revolutionary' who joined the party in its early years and later worked as a department director in Bengbu's courts, his associates said.

Mr Peng played a crucial role in Mr Li's political life - he nominated him for party membership, an honour and an entry ticket to a political career in China. Mr Peng, 69, said he decided to nominate Mr Li - one of only two put forward from among the intellectuals sent to the village - because of his contribution to the land.

Mr Peng said Mr Li spent most of his time reading and seldom showed emotion, unlike many youths disillusioned by the village's misery. 'He brought a box of books with him and he read a lot,' Mr Peng said.

'He was willing to work hard and he had a high level of education. I nominated him because we didn't have that kind of talent in this place.'

With his party membership secured, Mr Li was able to become party secretary of the Damiao commune two years later when he was only 21.

Others from the impoverished community, which remains a backwater even today, remember Mr Li well. They said he stayed in a house built for intellectual youths from the cities and rarely socialised with local residents.

'Once he had dinner, he just read,' 55-year-old farmer Wu Tianyu said. 'He always had a book in his hand.'

A high school teacher close to Mr Li said: 'He finished The Art of War by Sun Tzu when he was in primary school ... I believe he is deeply influenced by Confucius' thoughts.'

Asked if Mr Li's extensive reading motivated him to take an active role in student affairs during his time at Peking University, the teacher said: 'His father was a cadre, an old revolutionary. He is a cautious man and I don't think he would get too close to the liberals.'

The teacher said Mr Li demonstrated the traits of a man of strategy, even in his early days. 'He definitely wanted to do something big,' he said.

Mr Li was among the first students admitted to Peking University's law faculty, the best in China, following the resumption of college entrance examinations after the Cultural Revolution. But Mr Li was no longer the quiet bookworm. His associates from Peking University remember him as outspoken, articulate and open-minded.

Dissident Wang Juntao , who has lived in exile in the United States since 1994 after being sentenced to 13 years' jail for supporting the 1989 pro-democracy protests, said Mr Li was sharp-tongued and quick-witted.

Both were active student leaders and Mr Wang said he was so impressed with Mr Li's speeches that he nominated him to be chairman of a student representative congress.

'On campus, Li Keqiang was a student with an active mind and sharp words,' Mr Wang was quoted in an earlier report as saying. 'He has his own independent thinking and preferences. But he will not challenge authority on major issues. He is also a person who wants to have big personal accomplishments.'

Mr Li was a student of law professor Gong Xiangrui , an expert on western constitutional law who studied in Britain in the 1930s. He befriended many liberals and was involved in an intellectual 'salon' organised by radical thinkers, many of whom became dissidents after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. His outspokenness and exposure to liberal thoughts have prompted some observers to suggest Mr Li could become a bold reformer.

Political aspirations seemed to override his desire for other achievements, including academic accomplishments. An article in a Communist Youth League periodical revealed that, despite the pleas of university officials, Mr Li gave up the chance to study in the US to stay on as head of the university's youth league.

Mr Li later obtained a law degree and a doctorate in economics from Peking University.

His decision to sacrifice an opportunity to study abroad appears to have paid off. In 1983, he became an alternate member of the secretariat of the league's central committee, where he worked directly under Hu Jintao and became one of his proteges. In 1993, Mr Hu recommended Mr Li, then just 38, become the first secretary of the league's secretariat.

Mr Li began establishing his political credentials outside the league in 1998 when he was made deputy party boss in Henan . He became Henan governor a year later, making him the mainland's youngest governor and the first with a doctorate, and the province's party boss in 2002.

Mr Li kept a low profile in Henan, though he clamped down on media reports about, and NGOs grappling with, its HIV/Aids epidemic. He also quietly supported a publicity campaign to repair Henan's image, tainted by the epidemic spread by unhygienic blood collection.

He was appointed Liaoning party boss in 2004, where he took on a slum renovation project, and has since waited quietly to assume higher office.