China’s rubber-stamp legislature has appointed Li Qiang, a long-time aide of leader Xi Jinping, as premier, the man tasked with reviving the world’s second-largest economy after three years of zero-Covid restrictions.
The National People’s Congress endorsed Li in a largely ceremonial vote at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Saturday morning. Li got 2,936 votes, with three votes cast against him and eight abstained.
Li, 63, is one of the most trusted protégés of Xi, the country’s most powerful leader in decades. He will replace outgoing Premier Li Keqiang, who had been Xi’s second in command since 2013.
Traditionally, the premiership is an influential role in charge of the economy, although over the past decade, its power has been eroded by Xi, who has taken almost all decision-making into his own hands.
Even so, much of the new premier’s efforts are likely to be concentrated on trying to turn around the fortunes of the Chinese economy, which recently set a GDP growth target for this year of about 5% – the lowest in decades.
That will be no easy task: China is in the midst of a historic downturn for the all-important housing market, consumer spending is sluggish, and unemployment remains high among the youth. And local governments are saddled by debt.
Business confidence has plummeted following an unprecedented regulatory crackdown on the private sector and increased uncertainties about China’s future policy. Relations between the United States and China are at their lowest point in decades, leading to escalating tensions in technology and investment. Foreign investment in China has slumped.
Xi identified Li Qiang, a former Communist Party boss of Shanghai who presided over the city’s chaotic two-month lockdown, as the man to take on these challenges during a leadership reshuffle in October.
Born in the eastern province of Zhejiang, Li started his career as a worker at an irrigation pumping station. He received his undergraduate education in agricultural mechanization at a college in the city of Ningbo and then worked his way up through the provincial bureaucracy.
His career took off after he served as Xi’s de facto chief of staff when Xi was the party chief of Zhejiang province between 2002 and 2007.
Li is the first premier since the Mao era not to have previously worked at the State Council, China’s cabinet, as vice premier, analysts say.
It was Li’s personal ties with Xi that appear to have clinched his promotion over more qualified candidates, Julian Evans-Pritchard, senior China economist at Capital Economics, said when Li was promoted last year.
But some analysts said his tenure in Shanghai, particularly before last year’s Covid lockdown, pointed to a pragmatic, pro-business style.
During Li’s time there, Tesla built its first gigafactory outside the United States in the city. Tesla has sole ownership of that factory, the first foreign automaker in China to wholly own its plant.
“China’s business environment should turn more friendly, at least, in the coming two years” under Li, who is likely to support private companies and foreign investors, Citi analysts said in a research report.
In 2019, Li also oversaw the launch of China’s Nasdaq-style stock market on the Shanghai stock exchange.
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