Li Qiang: China's new premier and Xi loyalist

Li Qiang, one of Xi Jinping's most trusted allies, was confirmed as Chinese premier on Saturday.

Li was appointed to the seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo -- the country's highest echelon of power -- at the Communist Party's 20th Congress last October, ranking second in the leadership after Xi.

The ascension of the former Shanghai party chief had previously seemed in doubt after his handling of the financial hub's two-month lockdown last spring, in which residents struggled to access food and medical care.

"If proof were needed that loyalty trumps meritocracy in Xi's China, Li Qiang's elevation provides it," said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

"Li might be quite capable, and may make a good premier, but it is hard to see how he got there other than through Xi's personal favour."

Domestically, however, Li is seen by many as an approachable leader with a matter-of-fact manner.

Hu Shuli, the founder of the reputable financial magazine Caixin, described Li as "low-key and pragmatic" after he interviewed Li in 2013 when he was governor of Zhejiang, his home province.

A colleague of Li's from Zhejiang told local media in 2016 that Li was "especially good at listening to and incorporating views from all parties when making decisions".

- 'Business-friendly' -

Although it is not unusual for former Shanghai chiefs to be promoted to the party's top ranks, unlike almost all previous premiers, Li does not have experience working at the central government level.

Li, who started his career as an irrigation pump station worker near his hometown, does have rich local administration experience.

His three decades spent working in the Yangtze Delta, the country's economic powerhouse, earned him a business-friendly reputation.

He progressed steadily through the leadership levels, and was promoted to affluent Zhejiang's top job in 2012.

He is credited with supporting the rise of the province's digital economy and later in his career, championing US electric vehicle giant Tesla's Shanghai production centre.

Li has openly talked about his admiration for entrepreneurship in the past.

"We in Zhejiang are very excited and proud to have Alibaba and Jack Ma in Zhejiang," he told a press conference in 2014.

"But there should be more Alibaba and more Jack Ma."

In recent years though, China's technology industry has been hit by a sweeping crackdown, and Ma retreated from public view after a public speech in 2020 accusing financial regulators of stifling growth.

- Trusted by Xi -

Li's links to China's most powerful leader in generations go back to the early 2000s when he was chief of staff to Xi, then party boss of Zhejiang.

Li was later parachuted into Jiangsu by Xi in 2016 after a corruption scandal took down several provincial officials.

The following year, Li was appointed the party secretary of Shanghai -- a sign of the president's high degree of trust in him.

Now, in his capacity as premier and head of China's cabinet, the State Council, he will be responsible for the day-to-day running of the country, as well as macroeconomic policy.

"(Li) was seen as a business-friendly local leader but it's questionable whether these skills will translate well to overseeing macroeconomic coordination and regulatory agendas as premier," said Neil Thomas, senior China analyst at Eurasia Group.

China recorded merely three percent annual GDP growth last year –- its slowest in four decades excluding pandemic-hit 2020.

Despite the rebound from a post-Covid reopening, Li is still facing a difficult uphill battle.

He needs to stabilise the economy, defuse risks in the financial system, address the country’s collapsing property market and reassure consumers and investors at home and aboard.

But his loyalty to Xi is viewed by some analysts as an impediment to making his mark in solving these problems and a way for the president to assert his own economic agenda.

The previous premier, Li Keqiang -- a trained economist -- had his attempts at financial reforms curtailed by Xi's overwhelming authority.

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute, said that despite being the president's "trusted lieutenant",  the new premier's ability to push through policies is still limited.

"Xi will give Li Qiang more scope to run the State Council but on the basis that Li Qiang will do what Xi wants and not go beyond the perimeter set by Xi," he said.