Earlier this year, when China’s worst coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic broke out in Shanghai, Li Qiang’s career came under enormous pressure.
The city’s top official presided over the lockdown of the financial center, a city of 26 million people, a move that took months to stop the spread of the virus, disrupted the economy and sparked panic as people ran out of food and medicine. had.
In a moment that highlighted his unfamiliarity with the daily chaos caused by the shutdown, Li asked his aides to explain the concept of a “group leader,” a term used to describe a person who arranges errands. for residents who are not allowed to leave their flats.
But just months later, Li was promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee by Chinese President Xi Jinping to serve as the party’s second-highest official and presumptive prime minister.
Li’s meteoric rise, a loyal former secretary to Xi, whom he followed on stage on Sunday, will be instrumental in consolidating the president’s power as he prepares for an unprecedented third term.
“It goes against all kinds of predictions we had in the past,” said Alfred Wu, a professor at the National University of Singapore. “We thought the Covid management in Shanghai was a failure, but for Xi Jinping, it showed that Li Qiang is loyal.”
The president can “designate his people, whatever his people do,” he added.
Born in 1959 in Zhejiang and a former worker at an irrigation and drainage station in his youth, Li worked directly under Xi while he ruled the province from 2004 to 2007.
He is believed to be part of Xi’s so-called “Zhijiang Army” of former colleagues from the province — a play on words referring to a column the president wrote in a regional newspaper during the same period.
According to analysts at the Brookings Institution, Li is one of Xi’s “most trusted protégés”. In 2013, he himself became governor of Zhejiang, after which he took on the role of party secretary of the economically critical Jiangsu province and later head of the financial center Shanghai, an appointment made at the last party congress in 2017.
The biggest stumbling block in his rise – widely believed to derail his chances of a major role in the party – was the Shanghai outbreak in March to June this year. The outbreak sparked much criticism after the city experimented with a more flexible approach that eventually allowed cases to spread before the city was completely shut down.
In the run-up to the party congress, Shanghai did not take any risks. In a model example of the zero Covid restrictions that Xi welcomed last week, authorities took a crackdown on new infections, shutting down neighborhoods and quarantining close contacts for 7-10 days.
Li, who has no experience with central government, is now lining up to replace Prime Minister Li Keqiang, a rival to China’s top role in 2012 and a figure who has since been largely sidelined. Associated with a market-oriented approach, Li Keqiang was not included in the 205-member central committee announced Saturday, making him ineligible for the seven-member elite standing committee announced a day later.
There are elements of Li Qiang’s past that are also associated with private sector development, which Brookings says he “is strongly in favor of”.
In Shanghai, the country’s largest city and leading financial hub, Li Qiang oversaw the creation of the STAR Market, a new technology-based stock market that a former market official described as a “gift” from Xi. He also oversaw the construction of a Tesla factory in the city, which took just 10 months.
“Ignoring events from the past year, he actually has a good reputation with the business community in Shanghai. So he’s simultaneously a Xi protégé and someone who doesn’t seem “anti-business” to investors,” said Andrew Gilholm, head of China analysis at Control Risks, a consulting firm.
But in light of the lockdown, Gilholm suggested the appointment is also “a sign that implementing central guidelines is the critical performance measure of officials”.
Analysts added that the congressional promotions and reshuffles — even in the case of the second-most powerful position — point to Xi’s ability to fill China’s elite political circles with long-standing allies.
The Chinese parliament will not confirm the government posts of Li and other top party officials until the annual session meets in March.
“The premiership under Xi Jinping is really completely different from the premiership under Deng Xiaoping,” Wu said, referring to China’s previous emphasis on a collective leadership ethos that began after Deng withdrew from the political scene in 1994 and died three years later, but has since ended with Xi. “The prime minister is no longer as important as before.”
Additional reporting by Cheng Leng in Hong Kong, Wang Xueqiao in Shanghai and Tom Mitchell in Singapore