Li Keqiang and Green Growth
Image Credit: National People's Congress

Li Keqiang and Green Growth


In the run-up to this autumn’s leadership transition in China, the guessing game is in full swing. Who will be the new leaders? What are their policy priorities? What can we expect?

Li Keqiang is poised to become China’s number 2, taking over Premier Wen Jiabao’s spot. But we are relatively in the dark about what we might expect from Li when he takes over for Wen for two reasons: 1) his rise to prominence (at least among Western observers) is relatively recent, and 2) rising leaders in China don’t usually succeed by making their political beliefs loudly known (two exceptions may prove to be Wang Yang and Bo Xilai, depending on if they are promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee).

As Li, currently executive vice premier, prepares to take office, he has been promoting a number of social welfare issues. According to leadership expert Cheng Li, in this recent article in the Washington Quarterly, Li has shown interest in “affordable housing, food safety, public health care, climate change, and clean and renewable energy.”

It’s this last issue – clean and renewable energy – and the environment as a whole, that I would like to address. China has a number of challenges on the horizon (the end of the demographic dividend, rising unemployment, growing social inequality, etc), but one of the most significant is the country’s struggle with pollution and environmental degradation. Just to throw a few statistics out there: China is home to 20 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities, 90 percent of China’s rivers and lakes are polluted, and the Chinese government dealt with 580,000 environmental complaints in 2006. Beijing’s airport has recently seen a spate of flight delays and cancellations due to heavy smog, or “fog” as authorities have been calling it. As long as growth remains the government’s number one priority, environmental concerns will continue to take a backseat.

Li has certainly been actively promoting environmental and renewable energy issues.  Last October, he attended the International Cooperative Conference on Green Economy and Climate Change and called for international cooperation in developing green economies. In November, he commented that environmental protection is a “part of China’s long-term growth strategies” and attended a joint China-Japan environmental forum where more than 50 energy and environment-related cooperation projects were signed. At a national conference on environmental issues in Beijing, attended by provincial ministers and governors, Li said: “Providing basic environmental quality for its people is an essential public service for any government. It is necessary to improve the quality of life and provide a favorable environment with clear water, blue skies and uncontaminated soil.” He also called for better drinking water, better urban sewage treatment, stricter air quality standards, better hazardous waste management, and improved food safety measures.

He’s talking the talk, but will he walk the walk? Can we expect much from him on the environment? There’s certainly the danger that this is all talk. Indeed, we saw much of the same from Wen. In 2003, Wen was a vocal supporter of Green GDP, an initiative that was intended to quantify environmental degradation and thereby create incentives for local governments to improve environmental standards. But despite Wen’s initial support, the plan died a quiet death in 2007. Indeed, many of the social welfare plans espoused by Wen didn’t come to fruition. Additionally, as a member of the populist faction, it’s almost expected that Li would support these types of social welfare issues. If the economy slows, he would almost certainly tone down support for environmental protections in favor of maintaining the growth numbers that the central government relies on for social stability.

On the other hand, there has been a growing awareness of the severity and consequences of environmental degradation. And Li is also following the party line – China’s 12th Five Year plan does call for a significant reduction in energy consumption. Environmental issue are also swiftly becoming a trigger for social unrest. In December, protests erupted in the southern city of Haimen over concerns about a new coal-fired plant.  In August 2011, citizens protested a new plant in Dalian that would produce paraxylene, a highly polluting substance used in making polyester.  These are just a few examples of the emergence of environment and pollution-related protests.

Finally, Li is very smartly couching environmental protection in economic terms. In December, he said: “It is estimated that the output of green sectors – pollution treatment and energy saving – can exceed 10 billion yuan ($1.58 billion) during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) period.” He is clearly thinking beyond populist “campaign rhetoric,” analyzing how to give the issue political traction.

At this point, we can only speculate about what the future might bring.  Though Li has been outspoken about environmental issues, political infighting, factional compromises, and potential future crises could make it difficult – or impossible – for him to pursue this issue in the future.

February 4, 2012 at 17:03

Thanks for that.

That was an enlightening analysis and presentation. I really appreciated that.

February 3, 2012 at 16:20


Your questions are quite extensive, but here are my thoughts.

Your first question is whether Li Keqiang is a good match for the position of Premier. Before we can answer that question, we need to first point out what the prerequisite criteria are for the position of Premier. These seem to be:
1) Be young enough to serve 2 terms as Premier, from 2012-2022 (i.e. be born on or before the year of 1950), and
2) Serve 1 term (5 years) as Executive Vice Premier, on the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) as grooming/preparation before the two terms of Premiership. (i.e. from 2007-2012).

As a result of 2), it should be noted that the matter of who is chosen to be the next Premier would have been considered (and the deal closed) back in 2007, so we need to consider the candidates based on their positions at that time, not what positions they hold currently.

Due to 1), there would have only been 4 potential candidates for Premier: Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, and possibly Li Yuanchao (Li Yuanchao is dangerously close to the age cut off). Candidates such as Wang Qishan, Bo Xilai, etc. are all too old. Xi Jinping is now on track to become General Secretary and President, so he’s off the list of Premier candidates (much more preferable to be General Secretary than the Premier). That leaves Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, and Li Yuanchao.

Now onto 2). To satisfy 2), the candidate must have been eligible to be elevated to the PBSC in 2007. However, Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao were only alternate members of the Central Committee at the time (Li Keqiang was a 2-term full member). Li Keqiang’s promotion to the PBSC only required a two-step elevation, which is acceptable (there is precedent in Hu Jintao’s and Xi Jinping’s PBSC elevations). However, a three-step elevation would have been required for Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao, which is unprecedented and would certainly not have been accepted by other senior party leaders. That leaves Li Keqiang as the only Premier candidate.

So to answer your question, whether or not he is a good match for the position is moot. Li Keqiang is the ONLY match for the position of Premier.

He is considered a moderate (“populist”). As the above article mentions, he talks a lot about social welfare, inequality, and so on. His humble background and his rise through the China Communist Youth League (CCYL, which supports moderate policies) seems consistent with this. However, it may all the just talk, as he (like many other rising star politicians) tends to keep his actual viewpoints close to his chest, so we can’t be sure until he takes over as Premier. For example, we thought Hu Jintao was a closet reformist but his tenure has been one that has been relatively strict. Similarly, the changes Li Keqiang will implement will be based on his views.

The Chinese forums don’t hold him in high esteem at all. During his tenure as Party Secretary of Henan (and later Liaoning), there were a series of fires and industrial incidents, leading to his nickname “Three Fires Li”. People are also critical of his tenure in Henan especially, where he allowed entire villages to become affected by HIV/AIDS. Also, his tenure as Executive Vice Premier has been partially marred by the “818 Incident” during his trip to Hong Kong.

In terms of his background, as I mentioned above, he is from a humble (poor) background. Factionally, he is a member of the “Youth League faction”, also known as tuanpai, which includes Hu Jintao, Li Yuanchao, Wang Yang, and others who are related to the China Communist Youth League.

Li Keqiang has a number of political strengths. Notwithstanding the ambigious track record, his time as Party Secretary of 2 inland provinces (Henan and Liaoning), combined with his modest background and tuanpai factional identity, provide him a set of characteristics complementary to President-to-be Xi Jinping. Li Keqiang is probably much more understanding of the hardships of the inland provinces and the poor than Xi Jinping (Xi Jinping is from a rich Princeling background). His strong factional identity is a particularly important strength because it (at least theoretically) allows him to mobilise a large base of support within the Party in order to implement his desired policies. This is particularly so because so many of the upcoming generation of leaders are tuanpai: Li Yuanchao, Liu Yandong, Wang Yang, Liu Yunshan (possibly, unclear), Ling Jihua, Hu Chunhua and Zhou Qiang. Furthermore, because Xi Jinping is a Princeling, Li Keqiang’s complete contrast of a background allows the two politicians to complement each others background/strengths well, allowing for a balanced “Dynamic Duo”.

He does however have 2 main weaknesses. The first is his ability (or lack thereof). While he is certainly much more competent than apparatchiks like Zhang Dejiang, for example, he is considered to be much less able than leaders such as Li Yuanchao, Wang Qishan (and arguably Bo Xilai). Over the course of his career, he has held a large number of positions but he hasn’t particularly done well in any of them. Even in his current tenure as Executive Vice Premier, many of his policies (bureaucratic restructuring, stabilising house prices, etc.) have been largely ineffective. In contrast, Li Yuanchao is considered to have done well in Jiangsu and now as Director of the Central Organisation Department, and Wang Qishan was head-hunted from Hainan to fix up Beijing after the SARS crisis. The reputation of Xi Jinping himself has remained untainted by corruption despite the fact that he served as Deputy Party Secretary of Fujian during the time of the Yuanhua smuggling scandal. Also, Xi Jinping’s comment during a Vice Presidential trip to Mexico “First, China doesn’t export revolution; second, China doesn’t export hunger and poverty; third, China doesn’t come and cause you headaches, what more is there to be said?” has been largely applauded by Chinese forums (who want a strong leader). Li Keqiang’s second weakness is that he’s seen as “slow and soft”. Current Premier Wen Jiabao reacts very quickly (“fast”) to any disaster (e.g. the Sichuan earthquakes). Whether it is actually good or bad, at least it generates a good image and is good for morale. Wen’s predecessor, Premier Zhu Rongji, on the other hand, has a reputation for being very tough, particularly on corruption and incompetence of lower-ranked officials. In contrast, Li Keqiang is seen as someone “soft” (even softer than Wen Jiabao) who doesn’t like to rock to boat (or perhaps does not have the power/will to do so).

Only time will be able to tell whether Li Keqiang will do a good job as Premier. He might exceed all expectations or he might flop. But either way, we can’t change the fact that he will become Premier. All we can do is hope.

February 2, 2012 at 09:16

It seems that many of the Chinese commentators have an opinion about everything, sometimes quite rabid ones until the topic isn’t controversial.

If the Chinese commentators really care about how China is understood then maybe instead of jumping on the band wagon of righteous indignation they could use some soft power and explain thier country better in posts that aren’t controversial.

Some posts get frothing at the mouths commentators. Others you can hear a pin drop, but are just as relevant or even more so as it allows the commentators to express thier personal opinions without feeling on the defensive.

The fact that has been noted time and time again is that it doesn’t happen is the one issue that does make me question whether they get paid ‘to come on and defend China’ rather than post because they are interested in fostering understanding.

You can not blame the Western Commentators who make statements out of ignorance if the learning opportunities that exist and do not create controversy are ignored by many pro Chinese Commentators. This is one lesson that many seem to not understand or ignore.

Soft power is creating understanding of issues that are not controversial, it is a building of relationships and knowledge so that even the differences can be smoothed over or at least nullifed by respect for the others opinions. It is not the removal of the finger from the weapons trigger as a sign of power, its never needing to see the weapon in the first place.

Expressing your own personal opinions about Chinese issues that are not controversial is not a bad thing, if Chinese commentators are unable to do that as they dont have personal opinions only State directed ones then this is an issue that I find most exceedingly interesting.

February 1, 2012 at 16:32

What do the Chinese commentators on here think about him?

Is he a good match for the position?
Is he considered a moderate or a hawk?
What changes will he implement do you think?
What are the Chinese forums saying about him?
What is his background? Is he a princling or a ?
What are his political strenghts?
What are his weaknesses?

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