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What to know about Li Qiang, China's new premier


China's annual session of parliament ended today. President Xi Jinping secured a third term and stacked the government with allies, including a new premier. But as NPR's John Ruwitch reports, it's unclear if Li Qiang's loyalty is an asset or a liability.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: The story of Li Qiang's rise goes back two decades. He was working in his home province of Zhejiang next to Shanghai. Xi Jinping was the provincial Communist Party secretary, the boss. And Li became his chief of staff, a role in which...

VICTOR SHIH: He is the enforcer or go-between the party secretary of the province and all the subordinate units.

RUWITCH: A critical job, says Victor Shih, a specialist in elite Chinese politics at the University of California San Diego. Xi Jinping was on his way up but fighting factional struggles in Zhejiang. Li stood by his side.

SHIH: At that time, there were sort of two camps in the province, and so Xi Jinping's trust of Li Qiang might have started in this period of relatively intense conflict.

RUWITCH: That apparent trust grew. Li got promotions and was soon governor of the province. Along the way, he developed a reputation as a champion of private business. Here he is at an internet conference in 2014.


LI QIANG: (Through interpreter) People who can innovate are the most scarce and valuable resource in the world today. We not only encourage Zhejiang people to start their own businesses but also welcome anyone with a dream to start their own business here.

RUWITCH: In 2016, Li was promoted to party chief of neighboring Jiangsu province and, the following year, to Shanghai, where he put a cherry on top of his pro-business bona fides.

JOERG WUTTKE: He brought Tesla into the city.

RUWITCH: That's Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China. He says Li gave Tesla the green light to open the first wholly foreign-owned car company in China, which was a big deal when it happened in 2019.

WUTTKE: He enriched the supply chain. Now 20% of all the NEVS in Germany come from China, mostly Tesla. So he managed to establish a company in Shanghai that exports cars to Germany. I mean, that's quite a feat.

RUWITCH: But then came the pandemic. When omicron hit China last winter, Li tried to handle the Shanghai outbreak with a scalpel to keep the economy afloat. But case numbers kept rising, and analysts say Xi Jinping eventually made him use a sledgehammer.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Welcome back. On the 27, after having reported asymptomatic infections of over 3,000, Shanghai is locking down the city.

RUWITCH: The lockdown that state TV broadcast was referring to was a mess from the start.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: At one point, Li was confronted by agitated residents who were confined to a housing compound he was visiting. Supply chains broke down, and some people in China's most cosmopolitan city ran out of food. Anger boiled over, as in this video online of people scuffling with police in white hazmat suits.


RUWITCH: Through it all, Li was steadfast in carrying out Xi's wishes. His lockdown, which was initially supposed to run for nine days, stretched into a two-month ordeal. Joerg Wuttke again.

WUTTKE: He displayed this loyalty, which I think earned him the top job in the state council.

RUWITCH: That being the job of premier, which he was given this weekend. Cheng Li is with the Brookings Institution. He tracks the careers of Chinese officials, and he says after the lockdown, Xi Jinping had to expend significant political capital to keep Li's career alive.

CHENG LI: There must be some reason other than just loyalty. I think Xi Jinping wants to send a message.

RUWITCH: A message, he says, not just that Xi trusts him, but that he wants a capable lieutenant in charge of the economy. At a press conference in Beijing on Monday, Li addressed both, pledging his loyalty to Xi and to strengthening the economy.


LI Q: (Through interpreter) Our government will further build a market-oriented, rule-of-law-based international business environment, giving equal treatment of all types of enterprises.

RUWITCH: But Victor Shih of UC San Diego says there's still a big lingering question. Which of the 63-year-old Li's instincts will we see more of?

SHIH: You know, whether it will be his - you know, his own belief in the market, in private entrepreneurship or whether it's going to be his reflex to always carry out instructions from his patron.

RUWITCH: In the end, it may not be his call. Xi is the man in charge. John Ruwitch, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
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