Li Zhanshu: key aide to China’s Xi Jinping vaults to top of Communist Party

New Politburo Standing Committee member Li Zhanshu befriended Xi when they ran neighbouring counties in Hebei more than three decades ago

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 October, 2017, 5:47pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 February, 2018, 1:49pm

Li Zhanshu is one of the new members of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee. Here we take a dive into his background:

When Li Zhanshu was named de facto chief of staff to the head of China’s Communist Party five years ago, just months before Xi Jinping became its leader, few people expected he would one day ascend to the party’s apex of power.

But his “election” to the party’s supreme Politburo Standing Committee on Wednesday, ranking just after Xi and Premier Li Keqiang, was no surprise because Li, 67, had appeared on just about every prospective membership shortlist published this year.

It has been quite a turnaround for the former director of the party Central Committee’s General Office, whose rise to the top of the political ladder can be attributed to the fact he was the man Xi trusted most on the party’s 25-strong decision-making Politburo for the past five years.

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Xi and Li became friends between 1983 and 1985, when they were in their early 30s and were the party chiefs of neighbouring counties in Hebei province in northern China.

Aside from his three-decade-long personal friendship with Xi, Li has also built close ties with members of Xi’s family. In 2000, when he was a leading official in Shaanxi province, he helped Qi Xin, Xi’s mother, and Xi’s siblings on a fact-finding tour of the province during which they gathered material for a biography of Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun.

Li may have been marked for higher office in May 2011, when Xi, visiting the poverty-stricken southwestern province of Guizhou on a four-day fact-finding trip as vice-president, had several significant one-on-one discussions with Li, who was then the provincial party secretary.

Sources familiar with the discussions said Xi tested Li on a variety of issues, ranging from ideology to policy directions. They said Xi was impressed when he found that they were like-minded on many fronts.

Xi’s discernment has paid off in the past five years.

In mid-2014, Li became the first top cadre to express “absolute loyalty” to Xi, nearly 18 months before the Politburo decided at a meeting that “absolute loyalty to the party” was the most important political requirement.

In June last year, he became the first Politburo member to push for Xi to be recognised as the core of the party’s leadership, a status he achieved in October last year. In February this year, Li lauded Xi’s speeches as a “comprehensive theoretical system”.

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Li has also accompanied Xi on almost every domestic and foreign trip he has made since becoming party chief in late 2012 and in 2013 was named director of the general office of the powerful new National Security Commission, which is led by Xi.

That level of trust led to Li assuming a higher profile than previous General Office directors, as illustrated by his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in early 2015 to pave the way for a later visit by Xi. Li’s predecessors seldom made foreign visits by themselves.

Li, who was born in Hebei, gained plenty of experience in regional governance before joining the central authorities. A political education graduate from Hebei Normal University, he started his political career in 1983 when he became party secretary of Wuji county.

A year earlier he had written a letter to then party boss Hu Yaobang, urging the promotion of the long abandoned revolutionary song Socialism is Good. To Li’s surprise, Hu referred his letter to the Central Publicity Department and it was published in Peop le’s Daily, making Li’s name known nationwide.

He spent the next 15 years in Hebei before moving to Shaanxi province in 1998, and then moved on to the northeastern province of Heilongjiang in 2003.

Before becoming director of the General Office he spent two years as party secretary of Guizhou. A couple of months into that job, he said: “We should not be always at the bottom. We must spare no effort in going up.”

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A literature lover, Li’s career path could have been very different. He even entertained thoughts of becoming a journalist before entering politics.

“I dreamed of being a journalist ahead of becoming a government official,” Li told mainland media in an interview in late 2008, when he was Heilongjiang’s governor. “For various reasons, I failed to become a journalist. But I’m still an amateur enthusiast of journalistic work.”

He has written poems for years, including one about crying due to homesickness after seeing the reflection of the full moon in Heilongjiang’s Songhua River during his first Mid-Autumn Festival in the province in 2004.

Li has also said he is a fan of Peking Opera and boxing, but not personally proficient at either.

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