Back in 2014, the most loyal of Xi Jinping’s loyalists heaped praise on Jack Ma, founder of the Alibaba online commerce group and China’s most famous entrepreneur. “There should be more Alibabas and more Jack Mas,” Li Qiang said, speaking at an internet industry conference in his capacity as the then governor of Alibaba’s home province, Zhejiang.
Eight years later, Ma has been silenced by President Xi and Li Qiang has emerged from the Chinese Communist party’s historic 20th congress as its second-highest ranking official. The congress also marked the start of Xi’s third five-year term as party head and military commander-in-chief. His reappointment as state president — and Li Qiang’s appointment to the premiership — will be rubber-stamped in March.
Xi has made it clear that politics and security will eclipse economics as he prepares the party to steel itself for “high winds and perilous, stormy seas”. Lest there were any doubts about his intended direction of travel, on Thursday he led Li Qiang and the other five members of the party’s most powerful body on a tour of Yan’an. This arid outpost in northwestern China served as Mao Zedong’s revolutionary base before he seized power in 1949. It was there at the 7th congress that Mao, like Xi at the 20th, solidified his position as the party’s unassailable paramount leader.
The biggest question about Li Qiang, 63, is whether he will now merely aid and abet Xi’s instincts and instructions, which have crushed the animal spirits of the world’s second-largest economy. Or whether he will use the trust Xi has in him — and his experience as a pro-business, seemingly reform-minded regional leader — to mitigate the effects of the president’s most controversial policies.
In 2015 Li Qiang told state media that bolder economic reforms were a matter of “life and death”. “The government cannot be an unlimited government,” he said. “To build a limited yet effective modern government, you need to transfer a lot of managerial power to social organisations.” It is a sentiment that would seem to run counter to Xi’s more recent insistence that “the party is leader of all” and his administration’s relentless repression of civil society.
“Being a loyal ally to Xi should not be considered a sin,” argues Chen Long at Plenum, a Beijing-based consultancy. Chen adds that “there is potentially a large upside” for Li, as his policies will be assumed to have Xi’s blessing. That was not the case with outgoing premier Li Keqiang, who Xi distrusted as a one-time rival and quickly sidelined.
Li Qiang was born in a rural area of Zhejiang and appeared bound for a solid but not spectacular political career. After studying agricultural engineering, he worked his way through a series of posts in Zhejiang’s civil affairs department. In 2002, he was appointed party boss of Wenzhou, a city famous for its entrepreneurs. He comes across as amiable and confident, according to those who have dealt with him. He and his wife, a retired civil servant, have a daughter.
Ling Li, a China expert at the University of Vienna, notes that like many of the officials appointed last week, Li Qiang worked under Xi while the future president was an up-and-coming provincial official. As such, he was “lifted from political obscurity to positions of power after 2012”, the year that Xi was first appointed party general secretary.
Li Qiang served Xi in a secretarial role when he was governor of Zhejiang in the mid-2000s. Shortly after Xi assumed power, he took off like “a helicopter”, as fast-rising politicians are sometimes referred to in China. He was appointed governor of Zhejiang himself in 2013 and became the top official in nearby Jiangsu province three years later. In 2017, he was promoted again to become party secretary of Shanghai, a posting that initially reinforced his reputation as competent and business friendly.
It was on his watch that the Shanghai stock exchange launched a new trading board for technology companies and Elon Musk built Tesla’s largest overseas factory in the city. Li Qiang was also credited for the financial centre’s initially deft handling of Covid-19. By eschewing the across-the-board lockdowns adopted elsewhere in favour of more targeted management of small outbreaks, he reduced the economic impact.
But the reputation he had built up over years was shredded in weeks this spring, as the virus finally overwhelmed Shanghai. Li Qiang was forced to implement one of the most intensive — and badly managed — lockdowns China has seen since the very start of the pandemic. Many residents in one of the country’s most prosperous cities struggled to secure enough food for their locked-in families. As one technology executive told the FT at the time, “what’s the point of being rich if you can’t get fresh vegetables?”
At the outset of this ordeal, Li Qiang was harangued by three elderly residents for his administration’s incompetence while out an inspection tour. “You are guilty in the eyes of the nation,” one of them said, according to videos and Hong Kong media reports. “You shame the martyrs [of the revolution]. You shame heaven and earth.”
Li Qiang’s boss, however, saw it very differently. For Xi, says Ling Li, the lockdown instead “showed Li’s exemplary character as a true communist who can make difficult decisions and take on heavy responsibilities at critical moments for the party”.
Additional reporting by Xueqiao Wang and Cheng Leng