China’s parliament on Saturday confirmed President Xi Jinping’s trusted ally Li Qiang as the new Premier to revive the world’s second-largest economy hit by three years of ‘zero-Covid’ restrictions and worsening relations with the West.
Li Qiang, 63, succeeds Li Keqiang, 67, who held the post for the last 10 years.
The annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC), a largely ceremonial body which routinely passes the proposals of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC), approved Li Qiang’s candidature after his name was proposed by Xi himself.
However, his “election” unlike that of Xi was not unanimous.
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He was endorsed by 2,936 of the 2,947 NPC members who attended Saturday’s meeting, with three voting against and eight abstaining, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post newspaper reported.
After the voting, Xi signed a Presidential decree appointing Li Qiang as Premier following which he took a pledge of allegiance to the Constitution.
Later Xi shook hands with Li Qiang in brief video clips shown on national television.
After that Li Keqiang too shook hands with Li Qiang in what appears to be a smooth transfer of power considering that the outgoing Premier maintained a low profile in recent years apparently unhappy over the erosion of his power following the dramatic rise of Xi’s stature in the last ten years equating himself with party founder Mao Zedong.
Later Xi shook hands with Li Keqiang and exchanged pleasantries apparently bidding goodbye as he headed to his retirement from politics.
Li Keqiang, a contender along with Xi in the race for the Presidency in 2012, opted to retire last year apparently unhappy over the President’s big push to consolidate his power deftly using the massive crackdown against corruption and hold on the military.
He was regarded as a less powerful Premier in comparison to his predecessors.
Li Qiang, stated to be a pro-business politician in Xi’s inner circle, will be the number two ranked official of the CPC and the government after Xi, who on Friday was confirmed as President and the head of the military for an unprecedented third five-year term.
Xi, 69, is the only leader after the party founder Mao Zedong to have more than two five-year tenures and he is widely expected to be in power for lifelong.
Bilateral ties between China and some of the major western nations, especially with the US, are at their lowest point in decades, leading to escalating tensions in technology and investment.
Li Qiang worked with Xi in his early years during his provincial stints before he shifted to the central government as Vice President. He headed the party in Shanghai, China’s largest modern business hub.
However, his handling of the last year’s COVID outbreak, keeping the city of over 26 million under lockdown for about two months, drew sharp criticism at home and abroad as it resulted in heavy hardships for the population.
Li Qiang, who remained a close ally of Xi, is expected to galvanise the private sector as well as foreign investments into the world’s second-largest economy, dispelling the impression that the government, which resorted to crackdown against top business houses like Alibaba in the last few years, is reverting to the state-owned enterprises.
In his annual work report, Li Keqiang on March 5 proposed about five per cent growth rate target for the economy, the lowest in decades.
Considering the Chinese economy registered a three per cent GDP last year its lowest in decades, Li Qiang’s focus will be to shoulder the responsibility of shoring up the economy to previous levels of growth, defusing immediate risks, tapping into long-term growth potential and elevating China into a high-income economy during his tenure.
Li Qiang is scheduled to hold his first annual press conference on March 13 on the last day of the NPC session, which will be watched at home and abroad during which he was expected to outline his plan to revitalise the Chinese economy and tackle other challenges like a demographic crisis, technological bottlenecks and the US crackdown on China’s high-tech.
“Li Qiang’s biggest challenge will be reviving the Chinese economy this year,” said Ava Shen, China and Northeast Asia associate at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.
“It’s still uncertain if consumer demand can meaningfully bounce back this year to drive growth, and financial risks in the property sector and local government debt still linger.
“He needs to devise policies to further boost demand while keeping financial risks at bay,” Shen told the Post.
But analysts are debating how much policy leeway the 63-year-old former Shanghai Communist Party boss will enjoy as he embarks on his five-year term, given the authority of the position has diminished over the past decade as Xi consolidated power.
Considering the tight corner China faced and Li Qiang being his close confidant, some observers say Xi may give more room for the new Premier to revive the economy in his five-year term.
Besides Li Qiang, the NPC also endorsed Zhang Youxia and He Weidong as Vice Chairmen of the Central Military Commission (CMC) — the high command of the Chinese military headed by Xi — and Li Shangfu, Liu Zhenli, Miao Hua and Zhang Shengmin as CMC members.
The parliament also endorses a host of other appointments including the President of the Supreme Court nominated by the CPC.