HE IS one of the least loved leaders of the 20th century. He is uncharismatic, socially inept, a poor speaker and, perhaps most important of all in the minds of ordinary Chinese and Westerners, his hands are tainted with innocent blood. Yet Mr Li Peng, rumoured time and time again to be on the verge of falling from power, is expected to be given a new five-year term as China's premier at the National People's Congress today. For all his faults, the man obviously has what it takes. ''He does have the right strengths for someone in his position,'' said a Western diplomat who has met Mr Li several times. ''But his weaknesses also make him suitable for the premiership in this leadership.'' If a poll were to be taken in China, there seems little doubt the percentage of the population supporting Mr Li would be small. In the provinces, the mention of Mr Li's name often brings titters of nervous laughter from officials. Among ordinary Chinese,Mr Li jokes are a constant source of amusement. But no one can claim selection of a Chinese premier is a popularity contest. In the Orwellian world of Chinese politics, weakness can often be a strength. Nothing has tarnished Mr Li more than his role in the bloody suppression of the 1989 democracy movement. ''There is no way he [alone] was responsible for '89 - no politician could send the troops in without Deng Xiaoping's order,'' a Western diplomat noted. Nevertheless, whereas Mr Deng seems almost to have been forgiven for the June 4 crackdown on student protesters, Mr Li has been the fall guy for what must have been a collective leadership decision. It was Mr Li who donned a severe black Mao suit to read out the martial law decree. It was largely Mr Li who was left with the job of trying to justify the bloodshed. But, in an odd way, Mr Li may be benefiting from June 4. ''To get rid of him now would be the same as saying June 4 was a mistake,'' said a Chinese journalist. And the Chinese leadership is certainly not willing to admit any wrong-doing in massacring hundreds of people four years ago. APART from June 4, Mr Li is unpopular simply because he comes across publicly as bumbling and cold. During one of his rare pressconferences over the past few years, Mr Li referred to Taiwan as a country, a terrible faux pas. In his regular appearances on television, he is wooden and totally unspontaneous, as if he were constantly reading from a prepared script. ''He cannot exude friendliness,'' said one diplomat. ''He may be smiling, shaking your hand, but you never get the feeling he is smiling at you. It's an impersonal friendliness. You never get a feeling of warmth.'' Impatient, irritable and arrogant are some of the epithets foreigners use to describe Mr Li. But, analysts say, it is not a smooth-talking, charismatic premier that the octogenarian power-brokers want in place. Rather, they want a competent technocrat capable of carrying out policy worked out in political back rooms. And that is where Mr Li seems to excel. Despite his public image, people who have met Mr Li say he leaves the impression of being competent, well briefed and in command of the facts. By the standards of the Chinese leadership, he has made no major mistakes. The economy is running relatively well. There is no social upheaval. He is flexible when necessary, the most noteworthy example being his sudden shift into more reformist gear at last year's National People's Congress, when more than 100 changes were made to his work report to make it more positive on economic reform. That is not to say Mr Li has lost his instinct for caution. He and his government repeatedly point out the need for preventing the economy from becoming over heated. But, as one analyst said, his survival instincts tell him that ''now everyone has to be behind fast economic growth, whether it is prudent or not''. And perhaps Mr Li is more skilled in the reform game than it would appear on the surface. One Chinese official who worked with Mr Li said criticism of the premier as a conservative was overstated. Some issues, such as tax reform, were technocratic rather than reformist-versus-conservative issues. ''He is open-minded, but you have to give him a systematic explanation of how to do something,'' the official said. ''He does things step by step. He believes in the system, not in the individual. He believes in deliberate design, not just one person saying something is good, but others saying the plan is workable.'' In contrast, Mr Zhao Ziyang, disgraced former leader of the Communist Party, was prone to floating ideas by young think-tankers without considering the policy from all angles or hearing debate on the matter before going public, the source said.