China’s 20th National Party Congress: Debrief
Premier Li Keqiang Purged from Politburo Standing Committee
What implications does Li Keqiang’s removal have for the future of the Chinese Communist Party?
By: John Grintzias
Date: March 24, 2023
Premier Li Keqiang is the most notable figure of those removed from the Politburo Standing Committee during the 20th National Party Congress. As Premier, Li Keqiang was the second most powerful figure within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), behind President Xi Jinping. Following the 20th National Party Congress, Li Keqiang was replaced by Xi loyalist Li Qiang.
So why was Li Keqiang purged? The best explanation from expert China watchers is that his ideology did not align with Xi Jinping’s. His reformist policies did not reflect Xi’s more authoritarian agenda, and Xi did not approve of the way Li was attempting to steer the country. In fact, Xi had previously sidelined Li and removed his influence over economic policy.
Xi’s ascension to a third term in office gave him the power to further compose the Politburo Standing Committee to his liking. And the fact that a Xi loyalist has purged Li Keqiang, who held the second most powerful position within the CCP, indicates that Xi Jinping has centralized power with little opposition. An examination of Li Keqiang’s upbringing and beliefs may provide better context as to why he was removed.
Li Keqiang was born into a middle class family in the Anhui province. Growing up, Li’s early education was halted due to the events of the Cultural Revolution. His father, Li Fensang, sent him to a commune where he was required to do hard labor. His father was a member of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and later became a low-ranking official in the CCP. In 1976, Li joined the CCP as a secretary of the commune’s branch. Unlike many current and former high-ranking CCP officials, Li Keqiang did not have any family members in prestigious government positions. Li wanted his career to be based on merit, not lineage. In fact, when Li’s father offered him a position within the CCP, he declined. Li instead chose to carve his own path. In 1978, Li enrolled in Peking University—one of China’s top universities. While there, he studied international affairs and law and began to affiliate with the Communist Youth League (CYL) of China. It was at Peking that Li befriended future Chinese president Hu Jintao.
After graduating from Peking University in 1982, Li Keqiang would continue to rise in rank through his work for the Communist Youth League. Many at the time believed that Li would help foster the democratic wave in China. That is, until the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. Li saw the potential consequences associated with the democratic wave in China. It was clear that the CCP was against the promotion of democracy, and those who did would be prosecuted or executed, as shown by Tiananmen Square. Li sought to avoid those potential consequences. While avoiding controversy, he was eventually promoted to First Secretary of the CYL in 1993.
In 1998, Li was appointed governor of Henan Province. As governor, Li would improve the economy within Henan despite facing major controversies during his tenure. An AIDS epidemic, which yielded a 62% infection rate within small villages in Henan, plagued the region. There were even reports that poor farmers participated in illegal blood sales which contributed to the spread. Officials in Henan denied the report and condemned any sort of speculation regarding the epidemic. The party praised Li for his handling of the epidemic.
Despite facing controversy, Li’s career trudged forward. In 2004 he was named Party Secretary in Liaoning Province, and in 2007, he was promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee, where he would be named Executive Vice Premier of the State Council. The State Council is effectively China’s cabinet, which is composed of every single ministry within China. In 2011, Li was once again mired in controversy. In a human rights incident known as Hong Kong 818, Li visited the city in order to promote development between Hong Kong and the rest of mainland China. While there, Li toured the University of Hong Kong where many students protested his visit. The protestors opposed Chinese rule and advocated for an independent, sovereign Hong Kong. Three students who attempted to approach Li were forcefully restrained by police. Students were outraged about the situation, believing that their rights to freedom of expression were violated. As a result of this incident, not only was the image of Hong Kong University tarnished, but Hong Kong journalists were no longer permitted to be around Li.
Leading up to the 18th National Party Congress in 2012, many in the CCP believed that Li was in position to be Hu Jintao’s successor. However, Li had to compete with another rising star, Xi Jinping. Due to Xi’s rise within the CCP, and his father being a prominent figure during the Cultural Revolution, Xi beat out Li Keqiang and ultimately assumed the position of President. Meanwhile, Li was granted the second most powerful position in the CCP as Premier. He would then serve as Premier until he was removed from the Politburo Standing Committee in 2022.
Policies and Notable Achievements
Li Keqiang was an economist at heart, and many of his policies reflected that. Li’s first major policy decision came as Party Secretary in Liaoning Province, known as the “Five Points, One Line” strategy. It was designed to boost the economy of Liaoning Province. The five port cities of Dalian, Yingkou, Jinzhou, Dandong, and Huludao along the coast of Liaoning Province would be connected by one road, allowing trade to flow between the five cities seamlessly. Ultimately, Li’s “Five Points, One Line” plan aimed to turn Liaoning Province into one of China’s major port networks for imports and exported goods.
In 2010, Li Keqiang made a crucial appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. At this time, the global financial crisis had stymied the world economy. Despite this, China’s economy actually continued to grow. Thus, China was in a position to act as a leading economy that could initiate global economic recovery. China planned to do so by providing economic stimulus to struggling economies, which would help China’s GDP grow by 8.7%. At the World Economic Forum, Li emphasized the promotion of open markets, world development, and sustainable economic development. While his speech did not directly affect global markets, it was a much-needed boost to the spirit of the global economy.
In the post-recession environment, Li helped pioneer — along with The Economist — a method to measure economic growth. It was reported that Li himself actually measured China’s economic growth by using these measures instead of official measures used by most Chinese economists. As a result, these metrics became known as the Keqiang Index. Although the index did not account for technological growth in China, this index was seen as a more reliable alternative to GDP data in China because many economists distrusted China’s official GDP reporting. Economists use the Keqiang Index to measure economic growth by analyzing the weighted average growth rate of railway freight, power consumption, and bank loans.
Li Keqiang’s Marginalization
Because of Li Keqiang’s close friendship with former CCP president Hu Jintao during their time in the CYL, it is safe to say that Li’s ideology reflects Hu Jintao’s. Hu Jintao’s Policies were reformist and focused on the promotion of an open economy. Many of Li’s supporters were also affiliated with the Communist Youth League, which Xi has repeatedly criticized. Xi believes that the CYL promotes differing ideologies, including Western thought, among younger people. Li often criticized China’s economy and helped create the ‘Keqiang Index’ because he believed that China’s GDP data was“man-made” and “unreliable”, and condemned corruption within the CCP. While Xi also showed concern with corruption through his massive anti-corruption campaign, their definitions of corruption may differ. Li wanted to remove corruption for the interest of China, whereas Xi’s anti-corruption campaign was seen by many observers as politically motivated for his own benefit. As part of the policy, Xi purged many in the CYL who ideologically opposed him and replaced them with those affiliated with his power base in Zhejiang.
As a result of their opposing ideologies, it is believed that he was marginalized by Xi Jinping. Li’s reformist beliefs clashed with Xi’s authoritarian style, and it seemed as if Xi had cast Li into his shadow. Li has been attempting to push Xi to maintain capitalist open economic policies, but his efforts were ignored. For example, after the outbreak of COVID-19, Li was given authority to decide how China would deal with the economic effects of COVID. However, the media and public credited Xi with the decision to shut down businesses in China. Li likely would have made a different decision since he had shown discontent with zero-COVID, stating that “we must ensure both the smooth functioning of supply chains and COVID prevention are both achieved”. Xi pushed COVID prevention policies in a totally different direction. Li seems to believe that China’s economy is currently in a worse position than it was at the beginning of the pandemic, and measures should be taken to course-correct.
The End of Li
It is likely that Xi viewed Li Keqiang as a threat since he was one of the last remaining politically powerful members of Hu Jintao’s reformist clique — a faction that Xi wants diminished. Because Li held one of the most powerful positions within the CCP, he had some authority to enact reformist policies and help China maintain an open economy. But Xi, ideologically opposed to these reforms, pushed Li to the sidelines. In the end, Li was forced into an early retirement — despite age rules allowing him to continue — and pushed out of the 20th Politburo Standing Committee. Now that he is gone, Xi is surrounded by more Xi loyalists than ever. Li Keqiang’s removal sends a strong message that Xi wields all power within the CCP.