18th Party Congress

From lawyer to leader, Li Keqiang will be best-educated leader yet

Premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang's higher degrees in law and economics set him apart - but don't expect radical liberalism from this cautious cadre

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 7:27am

The next premier is likely to be the best educated since the founding of the People's Republic of China, with Vice-Premier Li Keqiang , who holds postgraduate degrees in law and economics from prestigious Peking University, due to succeed Premier Wen Jiabao in March.

At university, Li studied the ideas of leading British judges and mixed with democracy advocates, leading some to hope his premiership will herald significant political change in the world's last major communist-ruled nation.

Li is the first senior central government leader to hold a PhD in economics and master's and bachelor's degrees in law, all earned at a university that was a hotspot of dissent, and his liberal studies background contrasts strongly with the engineering backgrounds of those who have run China recently.

A member of the first group of students admitted to university after late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping ordered the resumption of the university entrance exam in 1977, following the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, Li studied law under Professor Gong Xiangrui , an expert on Western constitutional law who had studied in Britain in the 1930s. Li followed that with a PhD in economics under Li Yining , the mainland's market reform guru.

Kerry Brown, head of the Asia programme at the Chatham House think tank in London, said Li was the first lawyer to become a member of the party's supreme Politburo Standing Committee and he would be the first lawyer to become premier.

"He typifies the new leaders inasmuch as he is not a technocrat, has a PhD from Peking University and had a long period of training in the provinces before elevation to executive vice-premier in 2008," Brown said.

Li is one of the few top leaders fluent in English, surprising observers during a visit to Hong Kong last year when he broke with protocol and addressed an event at the University of Hong Kong in English. His wife, Cheng Hong, is a linguistics professor and an expert on American literature who has translated several modern American works into Chinese.

Brown praised Li for having an engaging public manner, something he said was shown in Li's visit to Hong Kong last year.

"He is not afraid of using English in public, though the heavy treatment of protesters and journalists at the time caused much criticism," Brown said.

Most of China's leaders over the past couple of decades have been engineers-turned-bureaucrats, trained in an education system heavily influenced by the Soviet Union.

But 57-year-old Li, like many of his contemporaries, brings a markedly different mindset to the problems facing the nation.

Li rose through the Communist Youth League, a power base of party general secretary Hu Jintao , before taking on senior postings in big, tough provinces - challenges that marked him for higher things.

He started his political career as secretary of the youth league at Peking University and went on to become a member of the secretariat of the league's central committee in 1985, when Hu headed the secretariat. He was appointed president of the league's Chinese Youth Political Academy in 1993 and also headed the league's secretariat from 1993 to 1998.

In 1999, Li became the mainland's youngest governor - and the first with a PhD - when he was appointed to head the central province of Henan at the age of 43. He became Henan party secretary in 2003 and Liaoning party boss in 2004.

He won promotion to the central leadership in late 2007, becoming a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, and was made executive vice-premier in March 2008.

When he studied at Peking University from the late 1970s, calls for free speech and democracy were sprouting amid the ideological disillusionment with Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.

Li reportedly plunged into campus politics as reformist ideas galvanised students, befriending freethinkers who went on to become dissidents in exile, and helping to translate The Due Process of Law by famed English jurist Lord Denning.

Former classmate and prominent dissident Wang Jintao, who has lived in exile in the United States since 1994 after being sentenced to 13 years in jail for supporting the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement, said Li was outspoken and quick-witted on campus.

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

Wang said he was surprised his former classmate had remained in the bureaucracy for so many years because Li had expressed his dislike for the bureaucratic way of doing things.

"On campus, Li Keqiang was a student with an active mind and sharp words," Wang wrote in a memoir. "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."

Another exiled dissident, Hu Ping, recalled that in 1980 Li, then a member of the official student union, backed controversial campus elections contested by Hu and other pro-democracy activists. Party conservatives were aghast at the radical experiment.

"After the election, I talked to him about elections, democracy and the political future of China," Hu Ping told overseas media.

At the university, Li attached himself to Professor Gong, whose classes became a seedbed for exotic, liberal ideas. Gong had earned his PhD at the London School of Economics and was also a student of Qian Duansheng , a Harvard professor in the 1930s who was the founder of constitutional law studies in contemporary China and also a key drafter of several Kuomintang and Communist constitutions.

Gong organised Li and two other students to translate The Due Process of Law.

"As a student of Gong at an age when a person's value framework is set and as a translator of the great British work, he must have deep belief in the rule of law and modern constitutional systems," another of Gong's former students said.

But China-watchers say Li's past experiences do not mean he will be a harbinger of radical liberalisation, with accounts by party insiders also depicting him as a political chameleon who has stayed within the system and paid his dues as a functionary.

Li, born into a traditional Chinese bureaucrat's family, also underwent systematic training in Chinese philosophy and culture before he was admitted to university.

His father was a county magistrate who later became the official in charge of relics and historical records in Anhui province. The younger Li was taught to recite many classical Chinese works when he was a child.

A former China Youth League official described Li as cautious and prudent. "He's seldom the first to speak up or lose his composure in conversations or meetings," the former colleague said. "And he also never lost his temper, at least in my memory."

Cheng Li, the director of research and a senior fellow with the John L. Thornton China Centre at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said that Li's policy priorities were those of a new generation.

"Li Keqiang has drawn attention for his strong interest in new issue areas such as affordable housing, food safety, public health care, climate change, and clean and renewable energy," Li wrote in a recent essay about China's next leaders.

"Not one of these issues was a priority for the Chinese leadership 10 years ago."

Hu Yifan, China economist with Hong Kong-based securities firm Haitong International, said that given Li's background in economics, hopefully "he could have a good understanding of China's economy and set up medium- and long-term strategies to facilitate economic transformation" - something the current leadership had not achieved.

Like the incumbent Wen, Li has been at the centre of reports about his family's business interests. Research by Cheng Li shows that his brother, Li Keming, holds a key position in the tobacco industry as deputy director of the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration.

"This is particularly ironic - and insensitive on the part of the soon-to-be premier - as Li Keqiang has been in charge of China's public health since 2008," Li wrote in his paper, "The Political Mapping of China's Tobacco Industry and Anti-Smoking Campaign", which was published on Thursday.

Brown said that as a protégé of Hu Jintao and with his experience in the provinces, Li had proved he was "able to handle and avoid crises", citing several career setbacks including the controversy over the spread of Aids in Henan through the buying of blood.

Though seen as a rising political star, Li was not named as Hu Jintao's heir-apparent at the 17th party congress five years ago, losing out to arch rival Vice- President Xi Jinping, a princeling supported by former president Jiang Zemin .

It was not his fist such setback. To the surprise of many observers, he failed to be elected to the party's elite Central Committee at the 14th party congress in 1992, even though he was first secretary of the youth league's central committee.

And two parts of his portfolio as vice-premier - housing and food safety - have continued to be massive sources of embarrassment for Beijing.

In a recent speech to the Boao Asia Forum in Hainan , Li said that China, after 30 years of reform and opening up, had reached the point of needing to tackle the most important issues, with breakthroughs needed in key sectors.

Brown says Li has proven himself to be economically reformist and liberal, although his attitude on socio-political issues is less clear.