Li Keqiang Prepares to Become Chinese Premier

Li Keqiang, China's next premier, is the only official at the top of the country's political system to have participated in a competitive election.

It was 1980 and he won the vote to head the student assembly at Peking University where liberal political ideas were then in vogue. Whether this early dalliance with democracy had any kind of lasting influence on Mr. Li will soon become clearer.

When the Communist party unveils its new leaders this week, Mr. Li will take the number two spot, and next March he will replace Wen Jiabao as premier.

Any hopes that he may be a reform-minded leader are grounded in his student days. Not only did he support open and free elections, he also immersed himself in English and law, studying under a professor who taught constitutional democracy.

Mr. Li has not forgotten his language training. He speaks the best English – proficient but not fluent – among China's top leaders. But he seems to have shed much of his idealism on the way to the summit of Chinese politics.

Wang Juntao, his former classmate who is now an exiled democracy campaigner, wrote about meeting Mr. Li nearly a decade after graduation: "I felt he had less of his independent strength of character and was more world-weary."

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The most telling episode in Mr. Li's career was his handling of an AIDS scandal in Henan, a poor central province where he served as governor in the late 1990s.

Villagers had been paid to donate blood which was – in many cases – pooled and then reinjected after plasma had been extracted. Tens of thousands of farmers were infected after blood carrying HIV was mixed into the common pool.

When reports about the outbreak emerged, Mr. Li cracked down on the media and activists. It took his government nearly five years to admit the problem.

Mr. Li was criticized in official circles for being indecisive, a knock against his leadership abilities that is still heard today. But he had two assets that protected him then and later paved his path to the top.

First, he has a powerful political patron in President Hu Jintao. He attracted Mr. Hu's attention in the Communist Youth League, the party wing dedicated to grooming teenagers and young adults for a life of serving the party. Mr. Hu headed the league in the mid-1980s, and Mr. Li went on to occupy that post in the early 1990s.

Graduates of the youth league form a political faction in China, and Mr. Hu pushed for his protégé to become president. But he had to settle for premier when another faction – the princelings, who are descended from China's revolutionary leaders – managed to line up one of their own, Xi Jinping, for the top position.

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Mr. Li's second asset is that he is viewed as a capable steward of the economy – a very important strength given that the economy is the premier's key responsibility.

"The overwhelming impression Li gave was that of a 'good Party bureaucrat'," Chinese contacts told US diplomats after Mr. Li was anointed in 2007 as the next premier, according to a WikiLeaks cable.

After his master's degree in law, Mr. Li obtained a doctorate in economics at Peking University where his adviser was Li Yining, a pioneering market reformer.

Over the past five years, Mr. Li served as vice-chairman of the Central Committee's "finance and economic leading small group", a position that has made him the second most important decision maker on economic issues after Mr. Wen.

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As such, Mr. Li can take credit for helping steer China through the global financial crisis in better shape than virtually any other country in the world, even if critics say that the cost of this success is a high debt bill that has yet to come due.

He is also believed to have played a crucial role in the China 2030 report authored by the World Bank and the Development Research Center, a think-tank under the Chinese cabinet, that recommended limiting the power of state-owned companies.

This has fuelled optimism that – while Mr. Li might have left any reformist political ideas back at university – he will push for financial reforms that will guide the world's second-largest economy to a more sustainable growth model.

Mr. Wen has faced scathing criticism for getting little done as premier despite all his talk about change. If Mr. Li's agenda turns out to be less ambitious, he could well accomplish more.

"Li Keqiang will be more effective than Wen Jiabao," said Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore. "Wen Jiabao tried to promote too many things – political reform, social reform as well as economic reform. Li Keqiang will be more focused."