Xi Jinping is seeking his third term as head of the Chinese Communist Party, while Li Keqiang is retiring after a decade in its shadow

As Xi Jinping seeks his third term in power at the upcoming 20th Communist Party Congress, one man is on the countdown to retirement.

Li Keqiang, the prime minister of the Chinese government and the country’s second most powerful man, is expected to leave politics after 10 years of ruling China under Xi.

While Li, 67, will have to wait until March 2023 to finish his term, his name is likely to be removed from the list when Congress announces the new group of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders in October.

Since becoming prime minister in 2013, Li has remained in the shadow of his colleague Xi, who is known for his extensive domestic government control and his push for an aggressive China on the international stage.

Li was determined to lead China to further embrace the market economy when he was first appointed 10 years ago.

Instead, he is now watching China persist with Xi’s suffocating zero-COVID policy, as he makes his last attempt to jump-start the economic machine before pulling out.

A bookish economist with a liberal mind

While Xi inherited the political legacy of his late father Xi Zhongxun, a leading party figure in the 1980s, Li came from an ordinary family.

Li Keqiang.
Li Keqiang is expected to resign at the next congress and finish his term as prime minister. (Reuters: Wang Zhao)

His father was an official at the local history registration office in a small town in eastern China’s Anhui province.

When he was still a child, Li was already known to be “quiet, not naughty” and loved to study.

In 1978, Li became a law student at Peking University, the birthplace of many liberal Chinese scholars and politicians.

He later earned a Ph.D. in economics, studying under the noted economist Li Yining, who was a strong advocate of free markets.

During her studies, she met the love of her life, Cheng Hong, who became a professor of American literature at the University of Economics and Business in the capital Beijing when Li became prime minister in 2013.

Cheng Hong and Lucy Turnbull
Li’s wife, Cheng Hong, pictured with Lucy Turnbull in 2017. (Reuters: Peter Parks)

Li was also active in student politics and was elected head of the Peking University student union, later leading its branch of the Communist Youth League, an organization equivalent to the Young Liberals of Australia or the Young Laborers of Australia. .

From there, Li forged a career path in both the party and government that took him all the way to Beijing.

A reformer with great expectations

In 2013, with the support of outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao, Li became the premier of China’s State Council, also known as the central government.

It came as the Chinese government was facing extreme pressure to adjust its economic structure amid the ongoing debt crisis in Europe and economic decline in the US.

The year before, China had posted its lowest increase in industrial output since 2000, at just 7.8 percent.

steel making
When Li Keqiang took office in 2013, he was facing the challenges of the global economic slowdown and the growing imbalance of China’s internal economic structure.(China Daily via Reuters )

Li understood the economic challenges facing China. At his first press conference as prime minister, he announced a series of reforms to boost the market economy.

“We have to leave the market and society [to do] what they can do well. The government needs to handle the matters that are under its supervision,” he said.

The policies, called ‘Likonomics’, focused on reduce government intervention in the free market, including lowering taxes, streamlining business approval processes, and eliminating capital requirements for new businesses.

It also continuously shortened China’s negative list of foreign investment: a move that was embraced by the international business community.

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