China’s Premier and second-ranked leader Li Keqiang on Friday said he would step down as Premier as he completes his second five-year term next March.
“This is the last year of my premiership,” said Mr. Li, 67, as he addressed a press briefing on the last day of the annual National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing. “I’m confident that under the strong leadership of the CPC Central Committee, with comrade Xi Jinping at its core, with strong support of various sectors, and especially with the joint hard work of the Chinese people across the country, China’s economy will be able to overcome difficulties.”
He added that China would continue its “reform and opening up” just as “the course of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers will not be reversed.”
Mr. Li, as Premier and head of the State Council or cabinet, guided China’s economic policy for the past decade, although under President Xi, the responsibilities and influence of the Premier had somewhat diminished with the CPC shifting from collective leadership to one-man rule. For instance, unlike his predecessor Wen Jiabao, Mr. Li had a less prominent role in China’s foreign policy and diplomacy, which Mr. Xi has dominated.
While both President and Premier have historically served two five-year terms, Mr. Xi amended China’s Constitution in 2018 to abolish term limits for the post of President.
The retirement of Mr. Li, 67, as Premier was, hence, expected, although he could still stay on at the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). The 20th Party Congress, a once-in-five-year event set for November, will see sweeping changes in the Party leadership, with several of the current 25-member Politburo set to retire. Officials aged 68 and above usually step down, although the amendment has made an exception for Mr. Xi, who will turn 69 in June.
Observers said the choice of Mr. Li’s successor, when he completes his term at the next NPC in March 2023, will reflect Mr. Xi’s influence and power. Usually, Vice Premiers are promoted to the post of Premier, and among the current Vice Premiers who may be chosen are Wang Yang, 67, and Hu Chunhua, 59, both of whom, like Mr. Li, share close ties with former leader Hu Jintao.
Two other Vice Premiers, Han Zheng,68, and Liu He,70, are known to have close ties with Mr. Xi but are of the retirement age. Mr. Xi either choosing them or another official who hasn’t previously served as a Vice Premier would be a first.
“The identity of his replacement will be a strong indicator of how powerful Xi is,” Michael Cunningham, Visiting Fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, wrote last week. “To appoint someone not serving as Vice Premier at the time of appointment would be unprecedented.”