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Xi casts Li in the shade

Publication Date : 05-01-2014


In the beginning, there were Xi and Li. Now, after a year, all that people see and hear about is Xi, leaving many to wonder where Li is.

The Xi-Li pairing refers to President Xi Jinping, the No. 1 man, and Premier Li Keqiang, his No. 2, in the new Chinese leadership who took power in November 2012.

Like their predecessors, the duo are supposed to work in tandem to govern China: Xi, as the general secretary and commander-in-chief, will take charge of party affairs, the military and diplomacy, while Li is to focus on running the economy and implementing government policies.

But in recent months, Xi has set himself apart from Li and hogged the domestic and global spotlight.

Last Tuesday, it was reported that Xi, 60, would be heading a new group set up to oversee the "comprehensive deepening of reforms" in China that were decided on at a key policy meeting in November. Some had expected the position to go to Li, 58, in his capacity as Premier, given his economic-centric portfolio.

Xi is also touted to head a new national security commission, also agreed on at the meeting.

In a departure from the norm, he had dominated the policy summit, known as the Third Plenum. The summit is usually spearheaded by the Premier as it focuses on economic matters.

But at the November summit, there was nary a mention of Mr Li's involvement in the drafting of the plenum's key document that listed 60 "reform" tasks - such as boosting the role of the markets - to be achieved in the duo's 10-year tenure till 2022.

In early December, Xi also chaired a high-level work conference on urbanisation, even though getting more farmers to move into cities - a key plank of the urbanisation push - has long been Mr Li's pet cause.

A recent visit by British Prime Minister David Cameron also produced proof that Xi is stealing Li's thunder.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Li's scheduled dinner banquet with his British counterpart was downgraded to a lunch after a dinner with Xi was arranged at the last minute.

These events have sparked talk of Li being sidelined and upstaged by Xi.

University of Chicago analyst Yang Dali thinks Xi is enjoying a higher profile as he is personally pushing reforms that are pledged in many fields, including in legal and security, and not just in the economic realm as was the case at past plenums.

"Given that the new reform plan calls for significant reforms in many areas beyond the economy, traditionally the Premier's main

area of responsibility, it makes sense for Xi to put his own prestige on the line," Professor Yang told The Sunday Times.

That does not mean Li is being sidelined, he stressed.

"They'll be working more as a team rather than as colleagues with separate turfs. It would be hard for the Premier to push for reforms without the general secretary's backing," added Prof Yang.

Analysts say Xi may have also learnt from the mistakes of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, who suffered a poor public image relative to then premier Wen Jiabao.

During their 10-year administration from 2002, the smiling, avuncular Mr Wen outshone the rather wooden and impassive Hu, and enjoyed greater popularity than his superior.

"Xi has evidently been willing to push the agenda and has also been savvy about communication. Previously Wen often was in the limelight, outshining Hu. Xi is careful not to let that happen so far," said Prof Yang.

Wuhan University analyst Qin Qianhong thinks it could boil down to Mr Xi's assertive personality and political ambition and Li's preference to let his work do the talking.

"For centuries, the relationship between the huang di (Mandarin for emperor) and the zhai xiang (Premier) has been hard to pin down, much depending on the relationship and chemistry between them," said Professor Qin.

"It's also smart for Li to lie low and bide his time in light of an assertive No 1. It won't benefit him if he tries to assert himself publicly and steal Mr Xi's limelight."

Some also think an increasingly powerful and visible Mr Xi could stem from a collective decision by the top leadership, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), to let him be a dominant figure so as to overcome vested interest groups and push reforms.

Again, this could be a lesson drawn from the Hu-Wen administration. They had failed to push political reforms after running into opposition from vested interest groups such as state-owned enterprises and powerful retired leaders.

Prof Qin said: "There's certainly demand for a stronger leader among those disappointed with the lack of progress in the past decade."

But Singapore-based analyst Bo Zhiyue of the East Asian Institute thinks Mr Xi is trying to shape a new form of Chinese leadership.

"Xi is trying to build a one-man dominated leadership by distancing himself from the rest in the Politburo Standing Committee, including Li," said Dr Bo, an expert on Chinese elite politics.

He added that Xi got a head start by becoming the Chinese Communist Party general secretary and the Central Military Commission chairman at the same time, a feat that eluded Hu and former president Jiang Zemin.

"It's Xi's own idea as he thinks Hu and Jiang were too weak in their early years. The PSC, including Li, is unable to stop Xi because Chinese politics has become increasingly institutionalised. Whoever holds the key positions holds the power," added Dr Bo.

But analysts point out that Li's powers as Premier have not been diminished and he continues to chair important meetings, though they may not be as widely reported as Xi's public appearances.

Also, in succeeding Hu as the leader of the Communist Youth League faction, Li wields immense influence.

"There is also a lot of room for Li to do his job as Premier, in implementing policy changes and running the economy, without having to consult Xi. It's impossible for Xi to do everything," said Dr Bo.

"Also, you never know what will happen in Chinese politics. Being No. 2 means Li is next in line to take over if something were to happen to Xi."


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