China Gets a New Premier
Li Qiang is now the second-most powerful person in China. What will he do with it?
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: Li Qiang is confirmed as premier, China brokers a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and fraud charges for exiled billionaire Guo Wengui.
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What Will Li Qiang Do?
Li Qiang, a close ally of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, has been confirmed as premier of China by a vote (as usual, nearly unanimous) at the country’s pseudo-parliament. Li Keqiang, the previous premier, retired after two terms, as, in normal times, Xi himself would have done.
The premier is the head of government, which certainly sounds important. And in theory, he’s the second-most powerful person in China. In practice, though, for the last two decades it’s been like being vice president of the United States, only without the dignity, authority, and clearly defined role.
The Chinese government is essentially the shadow of the Communist Party, moving as the party does, and consequently government roles matter far less than party ones. (Xi’s title as “president” is mostly for show to foreigners; his actual power derives from his role as party chairman.) Li Qiang’s own appointment was effectively made last October at the 20th Party Congress when he walked out second on stage after Xi as a new member of the Standing Committee, the top men of the party; the vote appointing him at the National People’s Congress this week was a mere formality. And while the premier might be the president’s favorite, there’s no clear chain of succession in the Chinese system, so he doesn’t even automatically take over if the president drops dead.
So what does being premier actually entail? The premiership has traditionally been held by people seen as business-friendly, and Li is no exception. But economic chops don’t translate to actual power; politics always comes first. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were premiers who were important political players, from Zhao Ziyang, a reformer eventually put under house arrest after the Tiananmen massacre, to the talented and popular Zhu Rongji. But it was Li Keqiang’s predecessor, Wen Jiabao, serving from 2003 to 2013, who perhaps best exemplified the position’s combination of high profile and political helplessness.
“Grandpa” Wen was known for turning up at disaster sites to offer a compassionate hand, a notable contrast to the poker-faced Hu Jintao, who was president at the time. Wen would regularly express emotion in public, and even touch upon controversial topics like democracy or the Cultural Revolution. In so doing, he built an image as a liberal reformer. But his opinions were sometimes censored by the press in the country he nominally governed, and none of the political reforms he talked about materialized. His daily routine was so full of photo-ops that an exhausted Wen was known to put his head on the table to nap between shoots. The premiership did offer Wen’s family the chance to make extraordinary amounts of money, though; Wen’s wife, Zhang Peili, controlled China’s diamond trade through the power of her husband’s position and a network of her fixers, and together they accumulated at least $2.7 billion.
The recently retired Li Keqiang wasn’t even given that opportunity. As Xi’s ascendant power became clear, a hapless Li was swept to the margins, trailing behind the president at official events and pouring out the sycophantic language of “Xi Jinping thought” and “the leadership of the core [Xi].” Li’s nominal agenda, economic growth, was sidelined in favor of the party’s tightened grip on all aspects of sociopolitical life. Li was a member of the Youth League faction, a loose grouping of men who originally made their careers through the relatively meritocratic Communist Youth League; their presence at the highest levels of government was obliterated at the last Party Congress. Li himself is, as exiled dissident and former friend Wang Juntao described him, “a defeated person.”
All of this raises the question of what Li Qiang will do. Unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t seem likely to take up the mantle of economic reform, even at a time when the Chinese economy is badly struggling. Although his first press conference out of the gate emphasized economic themes—and promised that U.S. talk of decoupling was just “hype”—another recent address was more telling. As premier, Li presides over the State Council, a top government group that meets twice a year. In his first address to the council on March 14, the talk was all of politics, and especially of Xi. The government, Li said, should be “guided by Xi Jinping Thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for the New Era.” Li advised they should “study and understand the important speeches of General Secretary Xi Jinping and the spirit of the two sessions, and conscientiously implement them.”
Unlike his predecessors, then, Li is unlikely to develop any kind of profile of his own. He owes his entire career to Xi, whom he’s worked under in different roles for the last two decades. Rather than any sort of reform, Li is much more likely to be known for his role of consigliere to Xi—a reliable hitman who takes on some of the grunt work that his boss doesn’t want to do. Li might be head of government, but it’s Xi’s party, and only his guests are invited.
What We’re Following
The Iran-Saudi deal. China scored a diplomatic coup last week as it mediated a diplomatic reconciliation between Riyadh and Tehran—a major step forward in its role as a global broker. Stephen Walt sees China’s move as a challenge to America, while Michael McFaul and Abbas Milani say Washington needs all the help it can get to keep the Middle East from falling into chaos. Jesse Marks, meanwhile, argues that Beijing will have a hard time keeping the two rivals in balance.
I’m skeptical that this means China has any significant role to play in brokering a Ukraine peace deal. Beijing has long-standing ties with Iran but has also gotten very close to the Saudis in recent years, sharing an interest in oil and oppressing minorities. When it comes to Russia’s war in Ukraine, China is increasingly tying itself to the Russian cause, severely weakening its credibility as an unbiased actor in the conflict.
Guo Wengui faces charges. Exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, who became increasingly entangled in Trumpist intrigue and has run harassment campaigns against fellow exiles, is being charged with fraud by the U.S. Justice Department. Guo is accused of running fraudulent investment schemes to solicit at least $1 billion. As covered in China Briefs passim, Guo is an exile not out of grand political convictions but because he was the losing player in power struggles in China—and then promptly threw himself into trying to play similar games in the United States.
Parts of the anti-Communist Party diaspora sought links to former U.S. President Donald Trump because they saw him as a savior figure willing to take on Beijing. That included the Falun Gong new religious movement, whose Epoch Times newspaper became a key hub of pro-Trump misinformation. Guo’s family foundation was a funder of the right-wing social media platform Gettr and several other operations linked to close Trump ally Steve Bannon, who was convicted of fraud charges before being pardoned by Trump. I’ve heard suspicions from intelligence officers and also from a dissident that Guo still maintains ties to Beijing; while such rumors about fellow exiles are common and often untrue, it’ll be interesting to see what a deeper investigation unearths.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• Staring Down the Black Hole of Russia’s Future by Anastasia Edel
• America Is Too Scared of the Multipolar World by Stephen M. Walt
• Don’t Trust Russia’s Numbers by Agathe Demarais
Tech and Business
AUKUS Riles Beijing. The nuclear-submarine deal between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, agreed in 2021, was cemented this week. Details were revealed of a highly expensive deal—costing Australia as much as $368 billion over the next three decades—that will significantly expand Australia’s naval capabilities with up to eight nuclear-powered submarines. There’s only one realistic target for those subs, and that’s the Chinese navy. Beijing has been understandably upset about a move that’s clearly aimed at Pacific deterrence.
Yet turning to economic coercion, one of the regular Chinese tools for expressing ire, isn’t really an option at the moment because of the need for growth. Beijing has regularly used import controls, usually through unofficial boycotts, to punish nations that go against it politically, from South Korea to Norway. But it’s just lifted prior restrictions on Australian coal, imposed during the fights over Canberra’s call for an inquiry into the pandemic.
Chinese students turned away. U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said last year that the “golden era” of U.K.-China relations, talked of by former Prime Minister David Cameron more than seven years and four prime ministers ago, was over. That’s increasingly visible in the numbers. The British security state is suspicious of Chinese students, once seen as a winning financial bet. Last year the United Kingdom turned away over a thousand Chinese scientists and postgraduate students on security grounds, up from 13 in 2016 and 128 in 2020.
Texas, meanwhile, is following up on its attempt to ban Chinese land ownership with a proposed Republican bill that would ban Chinese, Iranian, Russian, and North Korean citizens from Texan colleges. The Trump administration seriously mooted a ban on Chinese student visas altogether in 2018, before an intervention by then-Ambassador to China Terry Branstad pointed out that that would cripple U.S. colleges financially. But expect more state-level measures—and possible court challenges.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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