China’s Communist Party on Friday moved towards concluding its leadership transition with the expected appointment of second-ranked Politburo Standing Committee member Li Keqiang as the country’s next Premier.
Mr. Li (57), who was anointed as the successor of outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao five years ago, will take over the reins of the world’s second-largest economy as the head of the State Council, or Cabinet, which sets economic policies.
The new Premier is seen in China as the protégé of former President Hu Jintao, who stepped down on Thursday. The new CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping, appointed as the head of the party and military last year, was formally selected as Mr. Hu's replacement on Thursday by the National People’s Congress (NPC), or Parliament. Mr. Li rose through party ranks in the Communist Youth League, where Mr. Hu has his power base.
Mr. Li was selected at an elaborate "voting" session here on Friday morning, by the NPC’s 3,000 or so delegates who cast their ballot in a “one candidate election” – while delegates were only allowed to vote no or abstain, they could not back another candidate in the selection process. The close to 3,000 members of the NPC, seen as a largely rubber-stamp Parliament that follows the Party’s lead, only cast three no votes against Mr. Li.
Mr. Li is one of few top party leaders with a law degree — unique in a leadership largely dominated by engineers — and he also speaks fluent English.
He graduated from the elite Peking University during the political upheaval of the 1980s, when the school was a centre of liberal activism. Many of Mr. Li’s friends became student leaders during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Mr. Li, despite his close links to outgoing leader Hu Jintao, is seen by Chinese analysts as having a good equation with new leader Xi Jinping, raising expectations that the new administration will be able to be more effective than the previous leadership in bringing about a consensus in the party for bolder reform measures.
Moves to make “government smaller” by dissolving two Cabinet-level ministries, including the once powerful Ministry of Railways, with an aim to increase efficiency were approved by the NPC on Thursday, and seen by Chinese analysts as a sign of intent from the new leadership that they were prepared to take difficult measures.
In recent public appearances, Mr. Li has made out a strong case for reforms. He told a conference in December, “Reform is like rowing upstream. Failing to advance means falling back. Those who refuse to (make) reform may not make mistakes, but they will be blamed for not assuming their historical responsibility”.