- Written by Stephen McDonnell
- China Correspondent
The National People’s Congress, which begins this weekend, will be the symbolic culmination of Xi Jinping’s epic power grab.
The Chinese leader has reformed the Communist Party and put himself at the core, and no one else has had a remote chance to challenge him.
The strongest representation of this will be in the personnel shift to be announced at the annual political meeting, a rubber stamp session for about 3,000 delegates.
Take on the role of prime minister, the person who runs the world’s second-largest economy and, in theory, second only to Mr. Xi in the power structure.
Outgoing Premier Li Keqiang will take center stage on the first day. Then, in the end, the new prime minister, almost certainly Li Qiang, would occupy the limelight.
They are two very different people, particularly in terms of their loyalty to Mr. Xi, who started an uprising a decade ago with his anti-corruption campaign, riven the ranks of rival party factions.
At the Communist Party congress last October, new appointments to the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee meant that the most powerful group in the country now had only Xi loyalists.
At this meeting, the heads of departments and various ministerial positions will be replaced. It is expected that they all fall into the same camp.
This does not mean that they are unqualified but would they be willing to give bold and frank advice to the man who put them there?
“On the one hand, this may mean that Xi can really get things done with his new leadership, but on the other hand, there is a risk that he will get stuck in an echo chamber,” an experienced businessman told the BBC.
So, what will these designations mean for the direction of China?
If Li Qiang is indeed the new prime minister, sitting there on the final day of the National People’s Congress, taking vetted questions at the annual press event, it will be a meteoric rise for him.
Because of this, many were surprised when he was promoted to second place in the Communist Party selection ranking.
There wasn’t much shutdown but how poorly managed it was. Confining delivery drivers to their homes meant that food and medicine could not be transported efficiently to the many millions of people who were not allowed out.
There was a serious food shortage, and when supplies arrived, residents posted pictures of the rotten vegetables they were supposed to survive on.
Towards the end of the citywide lockdown, people are fed up. They would kick the fences that had been erected to restrain them and fight with the guards who had been put up to enforce what was at the time a much detested approach.
Observers wondered how someone responsible for such a colossal logistical failure could be given the task of running the entire country.
Well, on the one hand, his past paints a different picture. In years past, some in the business community saw him as an innovator capable of circumventing party inertia.
says Jörg Wuttke, President of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China. He has been doing business in the country since the 1990s and has had dealings with the upper echelons of the Communist Party for years.
Mr Wuttke added that the negative impact of the zero Covid strategy was still being felt by businesses and ordinary consumers alike.
“There is caution with spending because of the zero-Covid shock,” he says. “People have been shocked from the last few years in China. They’re risk-averse and they’re very careful when making decisions.” This shock is especially present in Shanghai and the allure of that has faded. The city is very much a place when it comes to foreign investment.”
However, Wuttke doesn’t believe this is Li Qiang’s fault alone — and other businessmen echo the sentiment.
Li Qiang is credited with bringing Tesla to Shanghai. It was the company’s first factory outside the United States and allowed it to set up its own venture, without having to partner with a Chinese partner in the same way other foreign car companies had done.
Announcing the advantages of the Shanghai pilot free trade zone in 2019, he said it will become an open area for international competitiveness, which would “serve as an important vector for China to deeply integrate with economic globalization.”
He is seen in certain circles as a more liberal figure willing to bend the rules.
However, it is unclear whether he will now become a rule bender, not afraid to do what needs to be done because he has Mr. Xi’s backing, or a former pragmatist who will align himself with a much larger platform, only within Mr. Xi’s shadow. .
In 2016, he became party secretary in the wealthy eastern province of Jiangsu, which is known for its tech companies. He sought meetings with Alibaba founder Jack Ma and other executives for advice on the business climate there.
But this was a different time. In recent years, Mr. Xi has ordered tech companies to be reined in, believing they have become too powerful for their own good. It was common for the heads of these companies to “disappear” so they could be questioned by party discipline inspection officers – the latest being the billionaire banker Bao Fan who brokered major technology deals.
This didn’t seem like the kind of things Li Qiang would have encouraged in the past, but he and Mister Shi go far back.
Before he was in Jiangsu, he was based in southern Shanghai in the other wealthy eastern province of Zhejiang. At that time, the provincial party chief was Xi Jinping, and after Li became his chief of staff, the two of them would work late at night, impressing those above them.
Xi did not have such a common background with outgoing Premier Li Keqiang.
They stepped together through a period with much more collective leadership and Li Keqiang was, in a way, a competitor. He was also considered as a candidate for the top post. You can’t help but wonder what China would be like now if he succeeded in Xi’s stead.
A brilliant economist who graduated from Peking University just after the Cultural Revolution, Li Keqiang rose through the party ranks via the Communist Youth League, a rival power bloc.
After losing the top position, he was soon handcuffed as prime minister under Mr. Xi who ran the place to an extent not seen since Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China.
At one point as prime minister, Li Keqiang declared that reintroducing street vendors in cities across China might help revitalize the economy and create a more lively atmosphere. But those who answered the call in Beijing were quickly ordered away again by the police.
Under Xi, what makes the capital look “backward” or “old-fashioned” is frowned upon. It does not matter that the Prime Minister did not make this proposal. In Beijing, you will not fly.
Whether it was because Mr. Hu fell ill or he caused trouble after his people were overlooked for promotion, this still unexplained event brought down the curtains on an earlier era in front of the world’s cameras.
As he was led away, he tapped Li Keqiang on the shoulder in a friendly gesture and the prime minister nodded.
Li Keqiang will be remembered for his strong economic record, but the end of his tenure in office was mired in the Covid crisis.
During the worst of it, he said, the economy was under tremendous pressure, and called on officials to be careful not to allow the restrictions to crush growth.
But when cadres had to choose between his order to protect the economy and Mr. Xi’s order to maintain zero-COVID with extreme discipline, it was not competitive.
Nothing beats Xi Jinping, who has the party line up any way he wants.
The only danger he faced seemed to be that his reputation was damaged among sections of the common people.
Zero Covid The rapid abandonment of Zero Covid against the backdrop of widespread protests; property crisis; high youth unemployment; The security crackdown and massive damage to the service industry have hurt his standing.
“Mao survived a period of complete economic collapse when people didn’t have much to lose,” says Wuttke. “Now people have a much improved standard of living, but middle-class parents are starting to worry that their children won’t have a better life than them.”
This year’s NPC, especially those who were promoted at the meeting, will be watched closely by those who want to know where this economic powerhouse is heading.
If Mr. Xi’s path is all that it cracks, China should be firing on all cylinders soon now that all obstacles to the leader’s path have been removed.
If the country is not doing well on all fronts, then tough questions will start to arise.
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