On May 11, the Wall Street Journal reported under the headline “China’s Forgotten Premier Steps Out of Xi’s Shadow as Economic Fixer.” The article revealed that people close to policymakers said Chinese Premier Minister Li Keqiang was trying to influence the selection of his replacement when he steps down as premier in less than a year. Li Keqiang’s goal is to find another prime minister who can check on Xi Jinping as he likely reigns for at least another five years.

The 66-year-old Li Keqiang, who will step down next year, has recently become the focus of attention. There are reports that Li Keqiang, who is “putting out the fire” for the authorities’ troubled economy, has become a potential counterweight to Xi Jinping at the top of the Communist Party and intends to influence the selection of the next prime minister.

Before the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) this fall, there is also the secretive Beidaihe Conference. These days, some news about high-level power struggles is circulating overseas. Do the rumors about the secret fight between Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping have any substance?

Western media: Li Keqiang finds an opportunity to lay out a successor

According to the Wall Street Journal, Li Keqiang has been a member of the “tuanpai” (a faction of the Communist Party based on the Communist Youth League.) Initially regarded as Hu Jintao’s favorite successor, the party elders chose Xi Jinping, and Li Keqiang became the second person.

The article quoted scholar Pei Minxin’s analysis saying that Li Keqiang’s image is rising. The editor of the quarterly journal China Leadership Monitor indicates that Mr. Li appeared in newspaper headlines 15 times more in 2021 than in 2020 and is on track to nearly double last year’s number if early 2022 trends continue.

The scholar also believes that Xi must make tactical compromises on economic issues.

While it is unclear how much support Li Keqiang has received, people close to policymakers said he has the support of some officials. They fear Xi Jinping is heading toward the Mao-era ideology rather than prioritizing practical measures to ensure economic growth, the report said.

Under Li Keqiang, the Chinese regime has recently eased its regulatory crackdown on private technology companies, relaxed loans to real estate developers and home buyers, and helped some companies affected by the zero-Covid policy to resume production.

For example, in April, Li Keqiang pledged to revitalize the “platform economy” in an industrial park in Jiangxi to support entrepreneurs. A Politburo meeting a few days later signaled a halt to the regulatory crackdown on tech companies. “Support the standardized and healthy development of the platform economy,” the meeting declared. Li Keqiang is believed to be the driving force behind this shift.

China’s economy is struggling. Growing dissatisfaction with Xi’s policies within the party has created opportunities for Li Keqiang and his supporters.

This summer, current and former leaders of the Communist Party at Beidaihe will decide on the personnel of the Politburo Standing Committee, a party insider said.

The report said that Shanghai party secretary Li Qiang was Xi Jinping’s hoped-for candidate for the next prime minister. Still, some in the party criticized his handling of the Shanghai epidemic, and his city closure also caused public grievances. 

Meanwhile, Li Keqiang-backed candidates may be gaining support. They include Wang Yang, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and Vice Premier Hu Chunhua. Both served in the Communist Youth League.

The media reported a similar statement on March 16, saying that CCP officials are now talking about “course revisions” to mitigate some of Xi Jinping’s policies. 

Li Keqiang may take advantage of Xi Jinping’s economic pressure to arrange more of “his own people” in some key positions. And after Li Keqiang steps down as prime minister, he is likely to stay in the top ranks of the CCP and hold other leadership positions.

Analysis: Li Keqiang has no say in prime minister candidates

Yuan Hongbing, a jurist, based in Australia, judged that Xi Jinping had established a complete system of personal dictatorship. A superpower machine formed by the joint office of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the State Supervision Commission and comprehensive control over “guns, knives, and pens.”

This situation makes Li Keqiang and others unable to effectively restrain Xi Jinping under the political logic of the CCP. Therefore, Mr. Yuan believed that Li Keqiang could not influence the prime ministerial candidate.

“Li Keqiang has no say in the selection of the next prime minister. If he fully obeys Xi’s political arrangements, he may maintain an honorary position in the future, such as the chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. If he does not cooperate, he will retire from politics,” Yuan Hongbing said.

Dong Guangping, a current affairs observer who was a second-generation official of the Communist Party and a former soldier and policeman, said on May 12 that Li Keqiang couldn’t influence Xi Jinping. In fact, “there is no one in the CCP who can check and balance Xi Jinping,—those who can check and balance him have already been eliminated.”

Yuan Hongbing also said that the current public outrages and official grievances are boiling. Therefore, people should think about effective methods to launch a national resistance to destroy the CCP’s tyranny instead of fantasizing about outdated politicians, let alone relying on Li Keqiang—a lifelong, obedient person of the Communist Party.

Yuan Hongbing said that some overseas media still do not understand the logic of the CCP’s operation. To attract attention, they fabricate a series of gossip about the internal situation of the CCP. Such information will make people live in fantasy, and if there is too much fantasy, they will not be able to resist the CCP.

Is Li Keqiang’s “fire fighting action” useful?

The Politburo meeting of the CCP Central Committee held on April 29 emphasized that the epidemic must be prevented and the economy must be stabilized. Both must be achieved. However, the conflict over the economic downturn caused by the zero-epidemic policy has recently become a topic of contention within the CCP system.

The official state media frequently followed Xi Jinping’s tone on adhering to the zero-Covid policy, but government officials headed by Li Keqiang kept shouting to protect the economy.

On May 12, Han Wenxiu, deputy director of the Central Finance Office in charge of daily work, said that the epidemic is a “stumbling block” for economic and social development. Therefore, it is necessary to scientifically, accurately, and effectively prevent it and control the epidemic. Chen Yulu, deputy governor of the People’s Bank of China, said that stable growth would be more prominent in the next stage.

According to Xinhua News Agency, Li Keqiang chaired an executive meeting of the State Council on May 11. He pointed out that the pressure on the economy increased in April, and fiscal and monetary policies should prioritize employment. Furthermore, under the prevention and control measures, logistics should be smoothed to maintain the stability of the supply chain.

On May 7, Li Keqiang warned that China’s domestic employment situation is “complex and dangerous” and that all government departments must increase the implementation of the employment priority policy.

At the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party on May 5, Xi Jinping emphasized that he must unswervingly adhere to “dynamic clearing” and “resolutely fight against all words and deeds that distort, doubt, and deny China’s epidemic prevention policy.”

At the State Council executive meeting on the same day, Li Keqiang talked about how to “help foreign trade enterprises.”

Dong Guangping believes that Xi Jinping has found that the economy is dying, and he has to make a compromise with Li Keqiang.
Dong Guangping also said that the vice-premiers, including Han Zheng’s group, had messed up the economy, so only Li Keqiang could continue to rescue the emergency. China’s economy is gradually deteriorating, and Xi Jinping is also clear that he can only rely on Li Keqiang.

However, Dong Guangping believes that no matter who becomes prime minister next year, China’s economy and society are now in a mess. “I can be sure that no matter who comes up, as long as Xi Jinping is in power, whoever comes up will not be able to do well, no matter how capable he is. As a result, China’s economy will be a mess, and it will be completely finished in the end.”

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