Premier Li: strong, or just moderate?

The challenges that await the mainland's new leadership will provide the biggest test of Beijing's commitment to reform

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 March, 2013, 5:28am

The premier's news conference on the closing day of "the two meetings" is an important date on the calendar, not only for journalists but also ordinary mainlanders.

The event is the only time in a year when the premier will meet the domestic and foreign media and pontificate on a wide range of issues, unvarnished and live on national television.

Yesterday's event was watched even more closely than usual at home and abroad as Li Keqiang made his debut as the new premier in front of the international media, on the last day of the annual plenary sessions of National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

He came across as being confident and pragmatic in dealing with questions on what he intends to achieve in the next five years ranging from pollution and urbanisation through to Sino-US and Sino-Russian relations.

Whereas his predecessor, Wen Jiabao , relished peppering his replies with poems and quotes from Chinese and foreign philosophers and urging the mainlanders to look at stars in the sky, Li avoided the high-sounding rhetoric and instead chose popular slang to illustrate his points.

Already billed by the state media as the reform-minded premier, Li vowed to push forward with necessary reforms to make mainland economic growth more sustainable, boost spending on improving mainlanders' livelihoods, build up a cleaner government and safeguard social justice.

Highlighting his continuous plan to streamline government and fight corruption, he promised to cut an existing 1,700 administrative approval items by at least one third in the coming five years, after acknowledging that mainlanders were faced with having to get approval from dozens of departments in order to start a new business.

Li also vowed to tackle pollution and food safety problems with an "iron fist and firm resolution".

As the news conference is highly choreographed with moderators carefully selecting journalists to raise questions, it was interesting to note that Li was spared hot-issue questions covering China's frosty ties with Japan, the tense situation over North Korea, soaring mainland property prices, how to undertake further financial reforms and the internationalisation of the yuan.

To the disappointment of many Hong Kong journalists, a reporter from Phoenix TV, the only Hong Kong-based media given the opportunity to raise questions, failed to engage Li over rising tension between Hong Kong and the mainland and the future of the city's political development.

Another question reporters should have raised with Li was whether he would make a stronger premier than Wen. After Wen was chosen as premier 10 years ago, there were concerns over his ability to take on the big challenges and responsibilities of a premier, with some cynics suggesting that his surname, Wen, which rhymed with the word "moderate", signaled he was unlikely to undertake necessary tough reforms.

Ten years later, those cynics are not wide of the mark as many mainlanders have complained about a lack of meaningful economic and political reforms over the past decade. By contrast, Li's given name includes the word "Qiang", which means powerful or strong. Let us hope he delivers what his name promises.