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From wooing Tesla to Xi’s right-hand man: Li Qiang’s road to China’s premiership

As Communist celebration boss in Shanghai, Li Qiang’s signature enterprise coup was persuading Tesla founder Elon Musk to construct the US electric-car maker’s first abroad manufacturing facility within the Chinese language megacity.

On the signing with Musk in 2018, the person who would someday turn out to be President Xi Jinping’s quantity two spoke glowingly about creating “beneficial” circumstances for commerce, whereas a rainbow on a large portray behind them created a halo over the rising celebration star.

However Li’s pro-business credentials are about to be sorely examined. China’s rubber-stamp parliament confirmed him as premier and head of the State Council, or the cupboard, on Saturday, with 2,936 votes in favour, three towards and eight abstentions. After signing his appointment letter, Li stood to provide Xi a fervent handshake. Hardly ever has an incoming premier confronted such a frightening in-tray.

Li and his financial workforce might want to devise a brand new progress technique to exchange China’s flagging debt-fuelled mannequin whereas overseeing a sweeping restructuring of the state, together with the monetary regulators, introduced this week.

Maybe tougher nonetheless, he should handle his boss. Xi’s sudden coverage modifications in recent times on points starting from cracking down on web firms to Covid-19 controls have unsettled buyers, analysts mentioned.

“He inherits a job that has so many headwinds, beginning with the true property disaster, the debt burden, US sanctions, the ageing of China and the sentiment being down,” mentioned Jörg Wuttke, head of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China. “The man has his work lower out for him and the low-hanging fruit has been plucked by his predecessors.” 

Elon Musk, left, meets Li Qiang in 2018 © YouKu

As with many in Xi’s interior circle, Li owes his fast rise to a detailed affiliation with the Chinese language chief after they each served in provincial jobs. An agricultural engineer, Li labored for Xi in a secretarial position when the latter was governor of Li’s native Zhejiang, certainly one of China’s wealthy japanese coastal provinces, within the mid-2000s.

After Xi grew to become president in 2012, Li grew to become Zhejiang governor himself, then the communist boss of close by Jiangsu province and in 2017, Shanghai celebration secretary.

Throughout these years, he was commonly pictured rubbing shoulders with high businesspeople, significantly Jack Ma, founding father of Zhejiang-based web group Alibaba, who has largely disappeared from public view since Xi’s web crackdown.

He even wrote the prologue to a e book by Wang Jian, chair of the Alibaba Group’s expertise committee. “Jack Ma and Wang Jian are each my favorite folks to speak with,” Li wrote when he was governor of Zhejiang.

Li is “uniquely positioned to guide the brand new administration” given his expertise in heading “essentially the most developed regional economies in China with vital contributions from personal, foreign-invested and state-owned enterprises”, mentioned Eric Zheng, head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.

Apart from the Tesla deal, Li can be credited with the opening of a brand new Nasdaq-style inventory market in Shanghai.

However Li’s file was blemished final yr after he carried out one of the vital stringent and, within the eyes of many, mismanaged Covid lockdowns in China. Residents of the nation’s wealthiest metropolis struggled to get sufficient to eat.

But he has refused to accede to criticism of the dealing with of the outbreak, later saying “we . . . gained the battle to defend Shanghai”.

The Shanghai lockdown has been extensively interpreted as a show of fealty to Xi, who had repeatedly emphasised the significance of the zero-Covid technique earlier than the coverage was deserted in December.

“The Shanghai lockdown confirmed that when push involves shove, Li Qiang will do no matter Xi Jinping needs,” mentioned Neil Thomas, a China analyst who this month will be a part of the Asia Society Coverage Institute’s Centre for China Evaluation in Washington.

Against this, whereas Li Qiang was paralysing China’s monetary hub, his predecessor, outgoing Premier Li Keqiang, was sounding the alarm over the financial impression of the pandemic on a video name with tens of 1000’s of officers. Li Keqiang, an economist by occupation, didn’t refer explicitly to Xi’s zero-Covid coverage, however his feedback hinted on the inside difficulties of balancing the strategy with financial progress.

Jack Ma, right, with Li Qiang, then Communist party secretary of Jiangsu province, in 2017
Jack Ma, proper, with Li Qiang, then Communist celebration secretary of Jiangsu province, in 2017 © Xiao guangdian/Imaginechina/AP

Regardless of occasional makes an attempt to be extra assertive, Li Keqiang was seen as largely stymied by Xi, who seen him as a one-time rival hailing from a distinct political faction.

As a trusted longtime adviser, Li Qiang might need higher entry to the president’s ear, analysts mentioned. Some instructed that, primarily based on his latest speeches, Li Qiang needs to pursue comparable insurance policies to his predecessor, together with controlling debt and reorienting the economic system in the direction of consumption.

“Politically he’ll give credit score to Xi Jinping by way of the achievements of the previous 5 years, however by way of coverage orientation he takes his cue from Li Keqiang,” mentioned Bo Zhiyue, founding father of the Bo Zhiyue China Institute, a consulting agency.

Whereas extra particulars of Li Qiang’s financial programme are anticipated to be revealed on Monday, when he provides his first remarks as premier, many observers count on Chinese language policymakers to be restrained within the coming yr as progress rebounds from final yr’s Covid controls.

“It appears to be like like policymakers are hoping and anticipating that this yr’s progress will likely be coming from natural sources . . . they usually don’t actually plan to drive up this progress with very expansionary coverage,” mentioned Louis Kuijs, chief Asia economist at S&P International Scores.

However in the long term, few count on Li to have the ability to resurrect the robust reformist premierships of the previous, resembling these of Wen Jiabao beneath Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, or Zhu Rongji beneath the late president Jiang Zemin.

A newcomer to the nationwide stage, Li Qiang might want to construct alliances in Beijing. However Xi, ever cautious about his place on the head of the celebration, is predicted to maintain Li on a good rein, analysts mentioned.

“The potential for unpredictability goes to stay a power threat with Xi in cost and particularly with a management workforce comprised solely of his allies,” mentioned Thomas. “Xi’s insurance policies will likely be carried out for good or unhealthy beneath Li Qiang.”

Further reporting by Nian Liu, Xinning Liu and Ryan McMorrow in Beijing