His COVID lockdowns made him one of the most unpopular politicians in China. Xi Jinping just made him the 2nd-most powerful man in the country. Meet Li Qiang.

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  • Li Qiang became deeply unpopular in Shanghai for imposing the city's two-month lockdown.

  • Last month, he was named China's new premier, making him the second-most powerful man in China.

  • They key to his success is his loyalty to President Xi Jinping, experts say.

Spring 2022 was a bad season for Li Qiang. Desperate to keep Shanghai's COVID-19 cases under control, the party boss oversaw a grinding, two-month lockdown of the entire city, forcing everyone from ordinary, working-class citizens to billionaires and celebrities to stay home and barter for food with their neighbors.

Throughout it all, as Shanghai's top leader, Li appeared on state media visiting hospitals and neighborhoods, repeating zero-COVID talking points.

"We must resolutely implement the spirit of the important instructions by Party Secretary Xi Jinping and steadfastly persist in the dynamic-zero approach," he would tell residents, according to Reuters.

But even as he continued to act as the face of zero-COVID, public discontent at the policies — and Li — flared.

On social media, residents complained of food shortages, families being separated, and a lack of medical care. There were so many posts that China's censorship machine struggled to contain them all.

During one public visit, he was stopped by several elderly ladies — including a white-haired granny in a wheelchair — who openly scolded him for his handling of the crisis.

And in a gaffe showcasing his unfamiliarity with the lockdown's pains, Li was caught asking aides to explain the concept of a "group leader," a term used to describe a designated person who would organize groceries for their neighborhood block, The Financial Times reported.

Li's growing unpopularity raised questions about his career progression, with experts wondering if the lockdown debacle might lead him to be passed over for promotion.

But on October 23, Chinese President Xi Jinping made it clear: It didn't matter.

When Xi announced the next generation of the country's top leadership, Li was named second-in-command.

Angry residents confront officials from behind a fence erected in a neighbourhood compound in the Xuhui district of Shanghai on June 6, 2022. - Residents stuck inside a compound nearly a week after Shanghai's much vaunted reopening following a virus outbreak shouted at hazmat-clad officials on June 6, as fears grew that some city neighborhoods were being locked down again.

Li owes much of his career to Xi Jinping

Li is now set to become the country's premier, the highest administrative position in the government and second in power only to Xi. It's a meteoric rise for a politician who wasn't even in the top seven positions that form China's uppermost brass, experts say.

"What's notable is that he did not have a prior vice-premier position, which is a common prerequisite of being appointed as a premier," said Dylan Loh, a public policy and global affairs professor at Nanyang Technological University of Singapore.

"President Xi has in some ways diluted or removed this requirement so that he can appoint Li Qiang," Loh told Insider. "It indicates to me that there is a lot of political trust not only in his fealty but in his competence."

Xi Jinping, Li Qiang, and other members of China's new top leadership walk in order of their rank.
Xi Jinping, Li Qiang, and other members of China's new top leadership walk in order of their rank.Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Li's career has been closely tied to Xi's own rise in power, and he's one of the president's "most trusted protégés," per analysts from the Brookings Institution.

He was Xi's chief of staff while the latter was the party boss of Zhejiang province from 2004 to 2007. At the time, Xi was climbing the ranks to stardom, and Li was climbing into the ranks of Xi's closest staff members.

"He was so close to Xi Jinping. He was Xi's man when he was in Zhejiang, and he didn't make a lot of mistakes," Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore, told Insider.

When Xi became China's paramount leader, he elevated Li to the role of the governor of Zhejiang in 2013. In 2016, Li went on to become the party secretary — the top regional party role — of Jiangsu, a wealthy, eastern province with enough GDP to be the world's 10th-largest economy if it were its own country.

After another 15 months in Jiangsu, Li was appointed party secretary of Shanghai, a key position that often indicates the holder is earmarked for the upper echelons of leadership. Xi himself was posted to the role more than 10 years ago.

"Having Li already established, Xi put him in an important position, and facilitated him to be promoted later on," Wu said.

Li's greatest value is his loyalty to Xi

Li has a history of being pro-business, sometimes even with the West. Under him, Shanghai worked with Tesla to build a "gigafactory" in 2018, even while the US and China grappled with a trade war. He also was one of the few top officials who pushed for Western MRNA coronavirus vaccines in China over relying solely on locally produced shots, going so far as to initiate discussions with German manufacturer BioNTech, per The Wall Street Journal.

But his real value to Xi comes in the form of his loyalty to Xi, Wu said.

An aerial view of Tesla Shanghai Gigafactory on March 29, 2021 in Shanghai, China. Tesla Shanghai Gigafactory is reportedly producing vehicles at a rate of about 450,000 cars per year.
An aerial view of Tesla Shanghai Gigafactory on March 29, 2021 in Shanghai, China. Tesla ShanghaiXiaolu Chu/Getty Images

As he's shown with his handling of Shanghai, Li has been willing to allow Xi's policies to supersede his own — even if they differ widely.

"Whether or not he will remain business-friendly remains to be seen," Loh said. "What this line-up tells us is that decision-making has been centralized to a degree that's probably never been done before."

If Li's promotion had been based on performance, Wu said, the incoming premier would have already been removed from power for his handling of Shanghai's lockdown. When the coronavirus flared up in Wuhan and Hubei provinces, their party bosses were ousted in 2020.

"He's a core loyal supporter. Xi Jinping doesn't look into other things. It's not about meritocracy," Wu said.

Read the original article on Business Insider