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The appointment of China's new premier signals Xi Jinping's plans for his third five-year term


It's been a significant week for China's rubber-stamp parliament, meeting in Beijing. The National People's Congress handed Xi Jinping a rare third term as president and also helped him consolidate power in another big way. It appointed a new premier who is his close ally. We turn now to NPR's John Ruwitch in Beijing. John, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Happy to do it.

SIMON: And please tell us about the new premier.

RUWITCH: His name is Li Qiang. He's a 63-year-old politician who hails from a coastal province just south of Shanghai called Zhejiang. Now, analysts trying to understand what he's all about, what he stands for, say that where he's from is an important clue because Zhejiang has been this engine of economic growth for China for decades, a hub of private enterprise and entrepreneurship. And Li Qiang's career was built there. In fact, he didn't leave to work anywhere else until just before his 57th birthday. While he was in Zhejiang, he worked his way up through local governments and then in the early 2000s got a big break. He was appointed the Communist Party boss of the city of Wenzhou.

SIMON: And why is that so significant?

RUWITCH: Well, these were go-go years, right? The Chinese economy was supercharged. It was growing in double digits. And Wenzhou was right in the middle of it. It was a hotbed for private business, and it was lauded as a model for other parts of the country. So it was a springboard for Li Qiang, who went on to become governor of the province and then most recently party boss in Shanghai.

SIMON: What about his relationship with Xi?

RUWITCH: Well, in a word, he owes his career to Xi Jinping. You know, two decades ago, Xi Jinping was sent to Zhejiang to run the entire province. He apparently liked what he saw in Li. He made him chief of staff in 2004, and they worked very closely together until Xi left the province in 2007. They formed a strong bond back then, and Li is obviously someone who Xi trusts very deeply to this day. Li became premier without having served a single day as vice premier, which is something that hasn't happened since Chairman Mao's days.

SIMON: And John, what are the implications in this appointment for the Chinese economy, which is reeling at the moment?

RUWITCH: This is a question that nobody seems to be able to answer yet. You know, Li could be great. People who've met him say he's sharp. He understands markets. He absolutely gets the value of private businesses and entrepreneurs, which are going to be critical for China to, you know, be a dynamic economy over the long run. In Zhejiang, he championed private businesses like the huge tech titan Alibaba. He did the same in Shanghai. You know, he was responsible for bringing in Tesla, which opened its first overseas factory there. Here's Victor Shih, an expert in elite Chinese politics at UC San Diego.

VICTOR SHIH: Very likely his own belief system, value system is, generally speaking, pro-business. But of course, he did not get to his current position because he is pro-business.

RUWITCH: He is believed to have gotten there because of his loyalty to Xi Jinping, which was on full display in Shanghai last spring when omicron hit. Li tried to manage it with a light touch at first, but cases kept rising. And by all accounts, Xi Jinping told him to get it under control. So he implemented a very harsh, unpopular two-month lockdown.

SIMON: So it sounds like the question being asked is at the moment, which Li will we see, the one who is the loyal friend or pro-business?

RUWITCH: Yeah, that seems to be it. But those aren't really necessarily incompatible, those two things. The problem for Li, though, is that he's going to have to strike a balance between policies that serve Xi's fixation on control and security with policies and reforms that will stabilize the economy and drive it forward.

SIMON: NPR's John Ruwitch, thanks so much.

RUWITCH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.