The Case for Li Yuanchao

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The Chinese Central Committee met on October 15 to discuss how the upcoming leadership succession should unfold during next year’s 18th Party Congress.

Over the years, a number of candidates have been discussed for promotion, including Bo Xilai, the party boss of Chongqing who gained notoriety for his attempts to curb corruption in the province; Wang Qishan, Vice Premier in charge of economic matters; and Li Yuanchao, the head of the Organizations Department who controls where Party members are placed.

Nothing is ever certain in Chinese politics – Xi Jinping, for example, had been considered bound to be promoted to Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission during the Fourth Plenum of the 17th Party Congress in September 2009.

Although the Party gave no reason why he was passed over for promotion, it left analysts wondering whether perhaps there was some infighting amongst the elite and that Xi could be seeing a fall from grace (he was eventually promoted to Vice Chairman at the Fifth Plenum of the 17th CPC in 2010).

A military leadership position isn’t a pre-requisite for becoming party secretary – China watchers have inferred the importance of this position because President Hu Jintao held this post before he was made party secretary, and it was believed that Xi would follow Hu’s path.

But while there has been much talk about who will succeed Hu, there’s been less discussion of who will take over from Wen Jiabao as Premier. While Li Keqiang is considered to be the clear front-runner and is the current “senior” Vice Premier, there a strong argument to be made that in fact Li Yuanchao, former party boss of Jiangsu Province and current head of the Organizations Department, would be an equally strong candidate for the position.

Li Yuanchao has some of the clearest hands on experience in implementing policies in a number of problem areas within the CCP. During his reign as Jiangsu party boss, for example, he improved party relations with the public, curbed corruption, implemented inner-party democracy on a provincial level, improved the conditions of migrant workers, and brought greater government attention to the dangers of environmental pollution.

And Li Yuanchao’s biography suggests a willingness and pedigree for leadership. He was born in Changzhou City, Jiangsu Province in 1950 and could be considered part of the “princeling” faction, which is comprised of elites who are descended from important Communist Party officials.

However, since Li’s career was advanced through the Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL), this also places him as a member of the “populist” faction. The populists are elites that rose from more humble backgrounds and have ties to the CCYL and Hu Jintao, who previously ran the CCYL in the 1980s.

Like most of today’s elites within China, Li Yuanchao was sent to work as a laborer during the Cultural Revolution. His political career began in 1983 when his first patron, Chen Pixian, the former party secretary of Shanghai, recommended him to Hu Yaobang to serve as CCYL Secretary in Fudan University. By the end of 1983, Li was made Vice Minister of the CCYL Central Committee.

One of the key periods in Li Yuanchao’s political career came during his tenure as Deputy Party Secretary of Jiangsu Province in 2000 and as Party Secretary of Jiangsu Province in 2002. While in Jiangsu Province, Li implemented a variety of political and administrative reforms and instituted a process called “service-orientated government,”fuwuxing zhengfu, in which the public evaluated government leaders; those who received the lowest evaluations were either demoted or fired. His reforms improved Jiangsu’s standing from the 5th most petitioned province to 23rd in 2006.

In 2007, rapid algae growth caused by pollution threatened Lake Tai. Li ordered it to be cleaned under strict guidelines that prompted a 15 percent drop in Nanjing’s GDP that year. The Jiangsu provincial government closed 2,150 chemical factories by 2008 and allocated between 10 percent and 20 percent of city and county revenues for environmental protection.

China’s leaders are aware that its economic rise can’t continue to come at the cost of growing environmental problems, and they have increasingly stressed the importance of sustainable development and investing in green technologies.

Li isn’t considered a front runner among China watchers to succeed Wen Jiabao. And this is a shame, because if China wants to continue its rise it will have to address growing economic and social inequalities, ethnic tensions, environmental problems, and endemic corruption. Li’s experience in handling many of these problems could be an asset to China and a boost to the fifth generation of leadership. Unfortunately, he doesn’t look likely to be given a chance to prove it.

Nicholas Miller is an analyst with the Centre for Strategic Research and Analysis and a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney at the Centre for International Security Studies.
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