Liaoning party boss Li Keqiang , widely believed to be the heir apparent to President Hu Jintao, resembles his political mentor in many ways - both cut their teeth when they were secretaries of the Communist Youth League and both are known for their photographic memories and caution. Before his first appointment as a provincial leader, Mr Li spent 15 years as a youth league leader, from 1983 to 1998. He was first secretary of the youth leagues' central committee for the last five of those years, a position Mr Hu occupied from 1984 to 1985. The political paths of Mr Li and Mr Hu crossed in 1982 when Mr Li remained at Peking University after his graduation from its law faculty to serve as secretary of the university's youth league committee. Mr Li became a direct subordinate of Mr Hu the next year when he became an alternate secretary of the youth league central committee. However, unlike Mr Hu, whose associates and former supervisors describe as a cautious cadre in his early years who rarely revealed his thoughts or personality, a former associate of Mr Li's at Peking University described the rising political star as an open-minded student leader not averse to using sharp words. Prominent 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 by students, said Mr Li was outspoken and quick-witted on campus. Mr Wang said he met Mr Li in 1978 when they were among the first batch of students admitted to Peking University when universities began readmitting students after the Cultural Revolution. Both Mr Wang and Mr Li were active student leaders and Mr Wang said he was so impressed with Mr Li's public speeches that he nominated him to be chairman of a student representative congress. Mr Wang said he was surprised his former schoolmate had remained in the bureaucracy for so many years because Mr Li had expressed his dislike of bureaucratic style during their conversations. 'On campus, Li Keqiang was a student with an active mind and sharp words,' Mr Wang said. '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.' According to Mr Wang, Mr Li's outspokenness upset other youth league officials at Peking University. As a result, he failed to be elected as a university representative to the 11th youth league plenum in 1982, even though he was secretary of the university's youth league committee. Other election setbacks have followed. At the 14th party congress in 1992, Mr Li failed to be elected to the elite Communist Party Central Committee, even though he was the first secretary of the youth league central committee - a surprise to many observers. Unlike China's fourth-generation leaders who are mostly engineers, Mr Li obtained a PhD in economics at Peking University after completing his law studies and co-wrote a book with economist Li Yining , who was his PhD instructor, and current Jiangsu party secretary Li Yuanchao in 1991. Very much an urban person, Mr Li was sent to Anhui's Fengyang county - the county that pioneered the reform of the household responsibility system - at the age of 19 during the Cultural Revolution and became his brigade's party boss two years later. That four-year stay in the countryside is probably his only rural experience. He became the youngest governor in China when he was appointed Henan chief in 1999 at the age of 43 and became Henan party secretary in 2003. He became Liaoning party boss in 2004. According to an article in Southern Weekend in 2004, Mr Li was also the first governor with a PhD. The report quoted a youth league official as describing Mr Li as someone who never 'lost his temper, seldom lost his composure and never gossiped before or behind someone'. 'He is always smiling even when meeting ordinary staff,' the report said. While he was in Henan, he retained a tight grip on media coverage of several disasters and exercised that same tight control over the reports of an Aids epidemic. Apart from that, he remains very much an enigma to observers - a trait in which he also resembles Mr Hu. One of the few opportunities for overseas media to approach the rising political star has been the discussion session of the Liaoning delegation at the National People's Conference annual meeting, open to overseas media. He refused to speak to Hong Kong reporters last year but when they approached him again this year, Mr Li displayed his quick wit and photographic memory by rolling out the challenges faced by Liaoning province in a lengthy and well-ordered answer - devoid of any personal flavour. After the reply, Mr Li, with a broad smile, said: 'Are you satisfied with the answer?' Nor did he lose his composure when reporters asked if he would soon be promoted to a leading central government role. 'That is rumour. You should not believe it,' he said. Rumours are rife that Mr Li is likely to replace Wang Gang as head of the General Office of the Communist Party's Central Committee - a crucial post in Zhongnanhai - and he is a strong candidate to join the party's top echelon, the Politburo Standing Committee, at the 18th party congress in six years' time. While no candidate can be too secure on the dangerous climb to the pinnacle of the Communist Party, only time will show what kind of leader Mr Li is - the bold and open-minded person remembered by early associates or just another cautious and faceless bureaucrat.