Chinese Premier Li Keqiang last week urged some 100,000 local government officials to take immediate action to ‘stabilize’ the situation in China amid upheaval and anger over the fallout from his ‘zero COVID’ pledge. .
Speaking via video link at a State Council executive meeting, Li said China’s economy faces an even greater challenge than at the start of the pandemic in 2020, according to Xinhua. , China’s state-run news agency, when employment, industrial production and consumption all fell.
It was an extraordinary call from the prime minister, a trained economist who spent much of his two terms on the sidelines while in China’s second-most powerful post.
Online, the meeting was also compared by some to a 1962 summit where Communist Party officials acknowledged the failure of the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous drive to modernize China’s economy that led to brutal famine. , according to the China Media Project.
While the meeting speaks volumes about worries within the Chinese Communist Party about the country’s economic future, Li’s re-emergence into the spotlight may also indicate worries about the future of China’s political system.
Once seen as a potential presidential candidate for former President Hu Jintao’s faction, Li has been largely sidelined as premier since taking office nearly a decade ago.
He was recently tasked with overseeing China’s response to the pandemic, but his controversial ‘zero COVID’ policy is credited to President Xi Jinping, who seems unwilling to accept anything less than an outright victory. on the virus.
Zero COVID, however, has put Xi in political hot water.
The policy has kept tens of millions of people in some form of lockdown since the start of the year and has also strangled some of China’s most important industries, including manufacturing.
Shanghai, China’s most important economic city and home to much of the country’s elite, is just emerging from a lockdown that began in late March.
Beijing appears to be under lockdown in all but name.
Read between the lines
Li’s recent forum and re-emergence could also signal issues at play beyond the economy, analysts said.
The upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party are notoriously opaque, but well-publicized events and subtle cues in the state-run People’s Daily can provide a window into Party thinking.
Recent signals, however, have been confusing to analysts like David Bandurski, the co-director of the China Media Project. After worshiping Xi for many months, the president was missing from the People’s Daily front page five times in May – just below the unofficial threshold that something could be brewing, Bandurski said.
Li, on the other hand, was slightly more visible when state media shared a transcript of his economic summit on social media, further heightening speculation.
“From late April to May, corresponding to new questions about the handling of COVID in Shanghai and pressures on the economy, the signals were to some extent mixed. It hasn’t been all the time all the time anymore,” Bandurski told Al Jazeera via email.
“This has led to speculation that Xi may be facing headwinds within the Party regarding his handling of the crisis – and that this could be an opportunity for Li, who may have very different ideas about the direction to take with the economy.”
Bandurski said internal Party thinking could become clearer in June and July ahead of the 20th National Party Congress, where Xi is expected to seek an unprecedented third term after leading the way constitutionally in 2018. For now, a- he says, the media is just as likely to glorify Xi as to project a more ambivalent message from the Party.
Internal political conflict
Adam Ni, the co-founder of the China Neican newsletter, also said Li’s sudden re-emergence into the spotlight would suggest some factions within the Chinese leadership are concerned about Xi’s third term and the impact of his policies. zero COVID.
“Both inside and outside the Party, people are worried about the centralization of power around Xi,” Ni told Al Jazeera. “I think we can read Li’s growing importance in this context. I think there are more people trying to signal their concern about Xi Jinping’s centralization of power and potential future by supporting Li Keqiang one way or another.
Ni, however, said it would be a mistake to think Li is now in a position to counterbalance Xi, who spent his first two terms gaining personal power at the expense of his prime minister.
“I think Xi is probably doing a tactical retreat on the economy, so let Li take the economic issues, if things go wrong you have to blame the prime minister, and if everything goes well, that’s to Xi’s advantage, and it alleviates some of the internal pressure,” Ni said.
For Li, his reappearance in the spotlight could also give his political career greater longevity.
“Our basic assumption has always been that Li Keqiang would remain in some capacity after the 20th Party Congress — most likely as head of the legislature,” said Trey McArver, partner at foreign policy startup Trivium China.
“I think recent criticism of Xi and his handling of the economy strengthens Li’s hand and makes it more likely that he stays. We currently estimate he has a 67.2% chance of doing so.