In the post-Deng era, Chinese Premiers have played an often oversized role in policymaking. This undoubtedly has to do in part with the Premier’s traditional dominance over the Chinese economy.
For example, in the section on the 1990s in their book Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, Orville Schell and John Delury choose to profile Premier Zhu Rongji, not President Jiang Zemin. As Schell and Delury explain in the book, “Although Jiang was the top-ranking official of the “third generation” (after Mao and Deng) of party leaders and was thus afforded the most exposure at the Clinton summit, the more important figure shaping China’s quest for prosperity in the 1990s was the number two man, Premier Zhu Rongji.” Although much less effective than Zhu at implementing his agenda, Premier Wen Jiabao similarly often came to overshadow President Hu Jintao.
The Premier’s position in the Chinese Communist system appears to be diminishing however. As others have noted, President Xi Jinping has appeared to amass more power than any Chinese leader since Deng himself. This has left it unclear just exactly what role Premier Li Keqiang will play in the system.
As noted above, Chinese premiers in the post-Deng era have usually been charged with handling the economy. During their first year in power, the Xi-Li administration appeared to keep this tradition intact. Premier Li appeared to often take the lead on the nascent economic reforms. Most notably, he reportedly played an integral role in pushing through the Shanghai Free Trade Zone. Additionally, Premier Li has been the primary champion for accelerating urbanization.
Since the Third Plenum in November, however, President Xi has increasingly been encroaching on Premier Li’s territory. First, President Xi—along with propaganda tsar Liu Yunshan and Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli—drafted the Third Plenum resolution, with Xi taking full credit (and blame) for its content. This was a break from the past when the premiers have been in charge of the team that drafted the final resolution.
More revealing, it was Xi rather than Li that was named as the head of the Leading Group on comprehensively deepening reform. This essentially means that Xi is taking the lead on the shape of reform in the coming years. As such, he will be China’s point man on the economy.
This is good news for reform. As I’ve noted before, Chinese leaders have been most able to reform the country when a strongman in power. Mao, for instance, radically altered Chinese society. Although it was almost always for the worse of the country, there is no questioning his effectiveness in imposing his will. Although Deng was far less powerful than Mao, he too was able to enact fairly radical reforms throughout the country (although more gradually than Mao).
However, while Xi’s consolidation of power bodes well for economic reform, it leaves open the question of what role Li Keqiang will play in the current administration. At this point, it appears he is being marginalized. This wouldn’t be all too surprising as Li is from the Chinese Youth League faction of the leadership while most of the other members of the Politburo Standing Committee are Princelings with ties to Jiang Zemin. Still, if Xi is able to effectively marginalize Li, it could have major implications for the selection of China’s Sixth Generation Leadership as well as the power of Li’s successors.