In a January 2015 The Diplomat article, I nicknamed General Office Director Li Zhanshu (栗战书) “the Éminence Grise of Zhongnanhai” for his low-key yet powerful presence among Chinese President Xi Jinping’s inner circle. Since then, he has gradually moved from behind the curtains to the front stage as Xi’s alter ego at critical junctures. With the approaching 19th Party Congress, China analysts have reached a consensus that Li will move up. The only question is, how high?
When Xi first arrived on scene, the China-watching community scrambled to comb the finest details of his past and beliefs. As David Lampton points out, “One of the problems we have in U.S.-China relations now is that we basically don’t know these people [referring to Xi’s trusted confidants].” To avoid a similar situation after November’s congress, this article seeks to answer the following questions: Who is Li Zhanshu and how should we understand the Xi-Li alliance?
Formative Years (1950-1972): Family Matters
Chinese names are usually composed of auspicious characters embodying the parents’ well wishes. However, Li’s name is rather odd according to traditional naming customs because it combines zhan, a martial character meaning “battle or to fight” with shu, a civil character meaning “book, letter, or to write.” Little do most people know, behind this unconventional name hides the tragic tale of an unlucky revolutionary family.
A native of Hebei province’s Pingshan County, Li got his name from the phrase “a letter home from the battlefield” (zhandi jiashu; 战地家书) in remembrance of his uncle Li Zhengtong’s last letter before he was killed in action in 1949 while fighting the Nationalist army. Twenty-seven members of Li Zhanshu’s extended family joined the Communist Party of China (CPC). Another uncle also fought in the Chinese Civil War and received crippling injuries in the field while another died in Japanese captivity in 1936. Grandpa Li Zaiwen was a Party old guard and a ranking official of Shandong Province until his death during the Cultural Revolution. Li Zhanshu’s father, also a Party member, was lucky enough to stay in the village and avoid the bloodshed of the outside world.
Born in August 1950, Li Zhanshu had a strict upbringing in a red yet traditional family. A good student, his college dreams were torpedoed when the Cultural Revolution shut down the schools. In winter 1968, Li returned to his native village as a “sent down” youth. Amid hard labor, he found time to study and eventually became a village accountant. When the college entrance exam was allowed again, he almost lost his seat due to his tainted family background. Fortunately, the village Party secretary fought hard on Li’s behalf. In 1971, Li was back in school and back on track.
Hebei Years (1972-1998): Coming of Age and Setback
Li started his career working at the Shijiazhuang Commerce Bureau in the capital Hebei province. He joined the Party in 1975. An outspoken and somewhat anti-establishment character, his critique of the bureaucracy captured the attention of superiors, who then promoted him to the Shijiazhuang Prefectural Party Committee. After a letter to General Secretary Hu Yaobang earned him national attention, Li was transferred to Wuji County as the Party secretary in 1983. This proved to be an event with deep implications down the road; Xi Jinping, then at the beginning of his career, was serving as the Party secretary in neighboring Zhengding County. The two “appreciated each other” like peas in a pod. Li saw Xi’s domain as a role model and called on the people of Wuji to learn from Zhengding’s model of economic liberalization.
After three years of working together, Li and Xi parted ways. The son of a senior central cadre, Xi left the bucolic northern plains for China’s glittering rich coast, while Li, the son of an ordinary Party activist, rejoined the Hebei provincial government. However, he soon clashed with Cheng Weigao, the new Hebei provincial party secretary and an adherent of Jiang Zemin. First threatened and then demoted, Li’s final days in Hebei were profoundly humiliating. Soon, he evacuated his native province in 1998 for a new beginning in Shaanxi Province.
Shaanxi and Heilongjiang Years (1998-2010): Toughening up
The primary destinations for political exiles during the imperial days were the frigid northeast, the arid northwest, and the hilly, malaria-infested southwest. Shaanxi, the gate to the northwest, was Li’s first stop. There he continued to hone his expertise in rural affairs. His career reached a watershed when he became the Party secretary of Xi’an city. But the Central Committee did not bless him with a coastal stint, crucial for accumulating political accomplishments.
In 2003, Li was sent to the rust belt province of Heilongjiang. His disappointment was evident in a poem composed upon arrival in old Manchuria:
A real man has no fear of dangerous tasks,
Mountains are rich in beauty and peaks are ever breathtaking.
The mighty autumn wind only bullies the weak,
Still the falcon spreads its wings and soars toward heaven.
A rust belt economic revival and increasing agricultural production were two of Li’s main focuses in Heilongjiang. As governor, he led delegations to Hong Kong in search of capital and hosted frequent conferences welcoming international investors. With fertile black earth, Heilongjiang has a natural advantage in supporting China’s food security goals. Irrigation projects were Li’s signature. Overall, he proved a competent leader. During his tenure from 2004 to 2010 as deputy governor, then governor, Heilongjiang enjoyed double-digit annual GDP growth, with the exception of the recession years 2008 and 2009.
A letter from this period reveals Li a smooth operator when engaging intellectuals. In addition, he became acquainted with the armed forces. He supported several proposals to improve the salaries and benefits of servicemen and made regular visits to barracks. He published articles sharing his thoughts on improving the militia, border control troops, and reserve forces, and won the 2008 man of the year for national defense mobilization construction. The same year, Li led a Heilongjiang delegation to participate in a popular talk show in the capital Beijing. Besides showcasing Heilongjiang, Li also used the opportunity to promote himself as an atypical bureaucrat by sharing his personal odyssey.
Guizhou Years (2010-2012): Going Out With a Bang?
However, Party bigwigs did not reciprocate the gestures of the northeastern governor. The “mighty autumn wind” continued to “bully” Li. He was transferred to Party secretary of Guizhou, China’s poorest province, in 2010 amid the global economic downturn. Approaching retirement age, it seemed Li’s career was to be buried among Guizhou’s rolling hills.
But Li decided to make a final push. His Guizhou strategy involved heavy investment in infrastructure and cutting bureaucratic red tape for private business growth. By 2011, investment in Guizhou reached 10,000 RMB (roughly $1,500) per person. Economic reform revived previously suppressed private enterprises. From 2010 to 2012, Guizhou’s economy grew 49 percent. Per capita household income increased at 32 percent in urban centers and 36 percent in rural areas. The number of hospitals rose from 1,982 in 2009 to 2,171 in 2012, and there were more doctors per person. Institutions of higher education expanded, while the number of primary schools shrunk due to the closing down of dilapidated schoolhouses.
A year into Li’s southwest expedition, a visit by old pal Xi Jinping, now in line to succeed Hu Jintao, changed Li’s frustrating career and assigned him a new mission.
At the Center (2012-present): The Comeback Kid
During the 2012 power transition, Li was promoted to the Politburo and named the new director of the Central Committee General Office, responsible for the daily needs of China’s top leaders, the safekeeping of important dossiers, and secured communications. In addition, Li simultaneously holds several inner Party posts, including member of the Central Secretariat, secretary of the Work Committee of Central Committee Departments, director of the Central Confidential Commission, and director of the Central National Security Commission’s General Office.
Occupying so many sensitive seats at once shows Xi’s trust in Li. Likewise Li did not betray that confidence. He always spoke in support of Xi and even bluntly demanded all Party members “submit” to the new Xi leadership core. Li also excoriated his predecessor Ling Jihua, a high-profile target in the anti-corruption campaign, and his associates in the General Office. Li played a significant role in assisting the purge of the General Office system.
During this time, Li also began to involve himself in affairs beyond his normal duties. After a March 2015 visit to Moscow where he met President Vladimir Putin as Xi’s personal emissary, he appeared with Xi at the September Xi-Obama summit, the Xi-Ma Ying-jeou summit in November, and the 2017 Xi-Trump summit. Domestically, Li represented Xi at counterterrorism conferences at the Ministry of Public Security and traveled with Xi to meet the new leaders of Hong Kong. On April 25, 2017 Li led a delegation to the Kremlin for the second time to discuss the China-Russia strategic partnership with Putin. No other General Office director has experienced the same degree of publicity and activities as Li.
Understanding the Xi-Li Alliance
Xi’s confidence in Li was built on an old friendship stretching back three decades. In the cutthroat environment of Chinese politics, Xi needs a trusted helper. Surrounded by double-dealers, brother Li from the tender olden days seemed a prime choice for an ally.
Unlike other members of the Politburo, Li has no strong ties with either Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao, ensuring his loyalty rests only with Xi. Li’s interior provincial network also complements Xi’s coastal network, which provides a balanced pool of candidates for the budding Xi faction.
Lastly, Li has no genuine feelings for the old elites who time and again suppressed his career. Whether it was Jiang’s appointee, who drove Li out of his native Hebei, or his banishment to China’s poorest province under Hu Jintao, the establishment failed Li one too many times. Thus, he would have no problem helping Xi — the person who saved his career — confront the old regime.
Li is a full-blooded Xi’ist, made evident by his deeply pro-Xi actions and speeches since assuming the directorship of the General Office. His increasing public appearances show Xi is in the process of cultivating him to take on greater tasks — perhaps as China’s number two man. One thing is certain: Li will be Xi’s closest ally post-19th Party Congress in realizing the latter’s plans for China.
Zi Yang is a researcher and consultant on China affairs. He is currently working on a project on the mental fitness of People’s Liberation Army servicemen, to be published by China Brief. Zi holds a M.A. from Georgetown University and a B.A. from George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter @MrZiYang.