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New premier Li seen as open, direct

Updated: 2013-03-15 14:04
By Chen Weihua in Washington and Zhang Yuwei in New York ( China Daily)

 New premier Li seen as open, direct

New Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (left), shakes hands with former premier Wen Jiabao during a plenary session of the National People's Congress where delegates voted Li as new premier at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Friday. Ng Han Guan / AP

Li Keqiang, who became China's new premier at the National People's Congress on Friday, has been hailed as a good selection despite a host of challenges facing his government.

Cheng Li, head of research at the Brookings Institution's John L Thornton China Center, said the premier's solid education in law and economics equips him with the knowledge a leader needs. He also pointed out that Li is the first Chinese premier with a legal background.

The 57-year-old premier earned an undergraduate degree in law at Peking University and later a doctorate in economics from the same school.

"His rich experience is also a huge advantage, having worked as head of the country's largest agricultural province of Henan and the large industrial province of Liaoning," Cheng Li said.

The Brookings scholar, an expert on the Chinese leadership, said the premier is well connected in the government, has a good relationship with Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China, who was chosen as the nation's president at the NPC meeting on Thursday.

The two men at the top of China's leadership complement each other, in Cheng Li's view.

He described the new Chinese cabinet chief as a uniter who can rally people around him. The Washington-based scholar also credited Li Keqiang for his record in promoting clean energy, affordable housing and urbanization.

"He also has a good reputation overseas, and many foreign officials, such as John Kerry, have high regard for him," Cheng Li said, referring to the US secretary of state.

New premier Li seen as open, direct

John Taylor, a professor of political science at the University of St Thomas in Houston, described Li as a "friendly, hard-working and low-key reformer" and "a leader genuinely interested in improving the lives of people living in impoverished areas, something that marked his tenure as Party secretary in Liaoning province and governor of Henan province".

Taylor said he's intrigued by the new premier's academic background particularly his PhD in economics.

"His understanding of the economic reforms needed by China is critical given what the nation needs right now," the professor said.

Orville Schell, director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society, said foreign observers haven't had a chance from afar to get a sense of Li Keqiang's work style or demeanor in interacting with ordinary Chinese citizens.

"This is an important element in any leader, and doubtless Premier Li will better define this aspect of himself over the months to come," he said.

According to Schell, China's leaders face two formidable challenges: continuing and deepening economic reform, and determining how best to embed the rule of law into the daily work of the Party and the State.

"The object is, of course, to enable this reform era to culminate with attaining an objective supported by Chinese leaders since Sun Yat-sen, namely, constitutionalism," he said, referring to a key figure in the 1911 revolution that ended imperial rule in China.

"Having studied both law and economics, Premier Li should be as well equipped as anyone to take on these two enormous future challenges and guide China down a pathway to this long promised goal," said Schell, who has written a dozen books about China.

Brookings' Cheng Li believes the new premier faces a monumental task in shifting the Chinese economy to one fueled by domestic consumption and innovation, from the previous export- and investment-led model.

Chinese leaders in recent years have all warned that their current economic-growth model is "unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable".

Cheng also cited a number of other challenges facing the new premier, including a possible real estate bubble, the mounting debts of local governments, inflation, pollution, food safety and problems arising from rapid urbanization.

Taylor, of the University of St Thomas, said the most pressing issue before the premier is the need to expand the economy while maintaining social stability, to avoid what economists call the "middle-income trap" of fast growth followed by prolonged stagnation.

"The issue of improving the economic and material well-being of those living in the countryside has to be near the top of concerns," he added.

Zhu Zhiqun, a political-science professor at Pennsylvania's Bucknell University and author of US-China Relations in the 21st Century: Power Transition and Peace, said the new leadership will adhere to established foreign-policy priorities of "peaceful development" and international cooperation while protecting core Chinese interests.

"Most Americans consider China an economic and technological power now, not just a country that produces cheap, shoddy goods," Zhu said "Chinese investments will increase in the US, which may help generate jobs for Americans.

"The US government sometimes is concerned about these investments for security reasons, which shows that the two countries still lack trust. Hopefully, with the two economies getting more interdependent and cultural and social exchanges deepening, the two countries will move closer politically."

In China, the new premier has been described by acquaintances as frank, amiable, resolute and responsible at work. He is seen as confident, smart and articulate in public, and reads and speaks English.

Chinese media have described Li as a reform-minded leader.

"Reform is like rowing upstream. Failing to advance means falling back," Li said at a meeting on advancing the nation's comprehensive reform.

He also stressed that only reform can improve Chinese citizens' living standards and that future reforms must ensure equal rights and opportunities for people and ensure that everyone plays by the rules.

At meetings, Li was said to have forbidden officials from reading prepared speeches and encouraged them to take the floor freely and ask incisive, persistent questions.

Li joined the standing committee of the Politburo of the CPC Central Committee, China's highest decision-making body, in 2007. He became a vice-premier in 2008.

Like many young Chinese during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), Li, at age 19, was sent to work on a farm in 1974 after he graduated from high school. He is said to have tilled land during the day and read books at night in impoverished Fengyang County in east China's Anhui province.

Chen Jia in San Francisco and Xinhua News Agency contributed to this story.

Contact the writers at chenweihua@chinadailyusa.com and yuweizhang@chinadailyusa.com

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