After Li Keqiang’s decade at the helm, China’s State Council has a new premier. The similarly named Li Qiang won a 99.6 percent endorsement at the recently-concluded session of the National People’s Congress. But in an era of strongman politics dominated by paramount leader Xi Jinping, is the role of China’s premier still important?
In some ways, the position remains hugely consequential. Despite its recent decline in status within the Chinese power structure, the State Council retains unrivalled bureaucratic importance in China, as the ultimate engine room for the country’s day-to-day governance.
As premier, Li Qiang not only sits atop this vast administrative system, but is also ranked second in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), like most of his predecessors. This makes him the de facto deputy to Xi, should China’s paramount leader become incapacitated for any reason during the next five years.
Another sign of the premier’s continued importance has come from Xi himself. By expending political capital to “helicopter” his ally into the role, Xi has shown how much he values the premiership. He might otherwise have let the office go to a more neutral figure, or even a factional rival like Hu Chunhua, who had been considered the most qualified candidate under CCP precedent.
Instead, Xi has installed Li Qiang, and some observers believe that the established trust between them will strengthen the premiership. Li is seen as having Xi’s ear, and that may empower him in the eyes of other officials. He has also received positive reviews for being pragmatic, business-friendly, and down-to-earth, characteristics that came through in his first press conference as premier.
At the same time, remember that outgoing Vice Premier Liu He is also a Xi confidant known for being business-friendly. Yet Liu’s presence over the past five years has done seemingly little to bring about more pragmatic, market-oriented policies. So it remains uncertain how much impact Li can have on the statist economic landscape favored by Xi.
The role of premier has indeed been weakened over the last decade, and its powers are not automatically restored just because Xi’s ally is now in the role. If Li is to be empowered as premier, he will need to have meaningful authority over one or more of the supra-ministerial commissions or leading groups currently headed by Xi.
Alternatively, it is possible that Xi keeps his ally in a position of relative weakness, as part of a Mao-style strategy that the scholar Victor Shih calls “coalitions of the weak.” One major weakness for Li Qiang is his lack of experience in central government and the wider country, having never previously worked outside of the Yangtze Delta region.
Li’s handling of the Shanghai lockdown has also weakened his image, if not within the political system, then certainly among the populace. He was publicly berated by angry residents last April, and his appearance at the China International Import Expo last November drew many derisive comments.
The latest reforms to the state apparatus would also not seem to empower China’s new premier. With its recently-approved reorganization, the finance and technology sectors will now have greater oversight from the CCP, marginalizing the State Council.
Li is further weakened by his relatively advanced age of 63, which makes him an unlikely successor to Xi. Since established age norms are no longer strictly implemented, it’s unclear whether Li might get a second term in 2028, or whether Xi will now have a series of one-term premiers, keeping himself as the only constant.
Despite these weaknesses, Li will surely still hold sway, and his ability to be a moderating force may prove to be his most crucial function as premier. This was a role that Li Keqiang played by speaking out on economic issues last year and earlier in the pandemic, albeit in a way that put him at odds with Xi.
Li Qiang, by contrast, will likely play this moderator role in a more cordial way, given his closeness to Xi. According to a recent Reuters report, it was Li who persuaded Xi to relax China’s COVID-19 restrictions sooner than planned (a claim that some veteran observers like Oxford professor Patricia Thornton found implausible).
Yet Li Qiang’s ability to persuade or challenge his boss will have its limits. As we saw in Shanghai last year, Li appeared to want to adopt a more moderate COVID-19 policy at first, but ultimately had to fall in line with Xi’s “zero COVID” approach. Whether he now has more power as premier should soon start to become clear.