An online magazine of news and opinions from the Asia New Zealand Foundation

Who is Li Keqiang?

While Chinese President Xi Jinping is now so powerful some call him the “Chairman of Everything”, not so many people know about China’s No. 2 – Premier Li Keqiang, who is visiting New Zealand next week to mark 45 years of diplomatic relations between China and New Zealand, as well as talks with government and business leaders.

Li Keqiang

So who is Li Keqiang, and why does he matter?

Li Keqiang comes from one of China’s poorest provinces, Anhui. Born in July 1955, he was in primary school when the Cultural Revolution began. After high school, he followed Mao’s doctrine for young people to learn from rural workers and became a “sent-down” or “rusticated” youth. He was sent to Fengyang county to work in manual labour.

Li is one of the “class of 77” – winning a place at Peking University after sitting the competitive college entrance exam, the first to be held after the Cultural Revolution. Li was a star law student, eventually heading the university’s Communist Youth League committee and finishing in 1982 as an “outstanding graduate”. He would go on to receive a PhD in Economics.

Li is a protégé of former president Hu Jintao…groomed for a leading role after working his way up the Communist Party hierarchy as a successful governor and party secretary of Henan province, where he demonstrated his economic nouse by promoting its industrialization and agricultural modernization.

As Fonterra and New Zealand government authorities were scrambling with damage control in the fallout over the melamine tainted milk powder scandal in 2008, Li was the first senior official to meet with victims and their families in a Hebei hospital.

Li has previously visited New Zealand in 2009, when he was vice-premier. He opened the Confucius Institute in Christchurch as well as signing bilateral agreements on education, food safety and quarantine. At the time, he complimented New Zealand for its “positive China policy”.   

Li became Premier in 2013. The Premier (and also referred to as prime minister) role can be likened to that of a Chief Operating Officer – heading China’s government and its executive (the State Council), and managing the implementation of national economic, social development policy as well as the state budget.

Forbes magazine named him the world’s 12th most powerful person in 2016, just ahead of Theresa May but after President Xi Jinping, who ranked fourth.

A selfie featuring Li and President Modi of India on Chinese social media platform Weibo attracted 32 million hits in 2015 – described by Forbes as the World’s Mightiest Selfie.

If there are issues keeping Li awake at night, they would be domestic issues such as dealing with growing disparity, corruption, border disputes, and pollution.

China has been depending on more bank lending and other credit to boost investment and demand – such as housing and construction projects, motorways and airports. The fear is that heavy debt and misspending will drag down growth.

Amid international uncertainty, Li has recently urged China to brace for “more complicated and graver situations” ahead, as a result of developments “both in and outside China”.

Li has set China’s growth rate for 2017 at 6.5 percent, which is slightly less than last year’s actual growth rate. Citing stability as more important than a fast pace of development, Li is looking to stabilize employment and create a million more jobs.

Li is coming to New Zealand with his wife, Prof Cheng Hong, a fellow Peking University graduate who specialises in American Literature. He is also accompanied by a 200-strong Chinese government and business delegation.

24 March 2017