Who is Li Qiang, man anointed as China’s premier?

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Li Qiang, the Communist Party chief of Shanghai, is set to become China's next premier after president Xi Jinping unveiled a new governing body packed with loyalists.

Mr Li, who is a close ally of the newly reappointed Chinese leader, was elevated to the second most important position on the seven-man standing committee on Sunday.

Current premier Li Keqiang will step down in March after the maximum two terms.

Mr Li, 63, has been party secretary of China’s largest city since 2017 and was parachuted into the politburo standing committee. According to analysts, he would be the first premier since 1976 not to be promoted from vice-premier.

The Shanghai post, touted to be China's most important, was previously held by Mr Xi, former president Jiang Zemin and former premier Zhu Rongji.

A native of Zhejiang province, Mr Li was Mr Xi’s chief of staff from 2004 to 2007 when Mr Xi was serving as the party chief of Zhejiang – a centre for export-oriented manufacturing and private enterprise.

He headed the province’s political and legal affairs department before being made deputy party secretary.

Mr Li was promoted to the governor's role of Shanghai in 2013, the year Mr Xi became president, paving the way for him to be groomed for bigger roles. Mr Li, a loyal companion to the Chinese president, travelled to the US with Mr Xi in 2015 to meet then president Barack Obama.

He was elevated to provincial party chief in 2016 when the president removed several officials in Jiangsu province as part of a corruption crackdown.

His reputation was dented by a grinding two-month-long Covid-19 lockdown of Shanghai earlier this year that confined 25 million people to their homes, severely disrupting the economy and prompting scattered public protests.

Mr Li oversaw the implementation of the president’s “zero-Covid” decree, while district-level officials were punished as a means of placating public anger.

During the lockdown, he often appeared on state media visiting residential compounds and hospitals while reiterating the party line: “We must resolutely implement the spirit of the important instructions by party secretary Xi Jinping and steadfastly persist in the dynamic-zero approach.”

Mr Li was also known for pushing greater economic integration of the Yangtze River Delta region as well as overseeing an expansion of Shanghai's free trade zone.

However, his rapid elevation to power appears to indicate that loyalty to Mr Xi trumps public popularity and incompetence in governance.

“Tradition is that somebody who becomes premier must be vice-premier before – this is totally against party convention,” Willy Lam, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, told Reuters, describing Mr Li’s performance in Shanghai as mediocre.

“We have not seen Li Qiang introduce any market-oriented reforms,” Mr Lam added.