Li Keqiang: The End of an Era
Li Keqiang, the former premier of China, has died at the age of 68 from a heart attack. His passing marks the end of an era in Chinese politics, symbolizing the failure of attempts to institutionalize the Communist Party and prevent the concentration of power in the hands of one leader. Li was initially hailed as a potential force for change, with his humble upbringing and economic training inspiring hope for a more balanced and inclusive leadership. However, his tenure as premier saw his role diminish in importance as Xi Jinping consolidated power, ultimately sidelining Li.
The Failure of Institutionalization
The death of Li Keqiang signals the failure of efforts to institutionalize the Communist Party in China. After the chaos of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, party leaders introduced rules and norms to prevent a repeat of such destructive upheaval and to curb the excessive power of any individual leader. Unwritten paths to promotion and retirement ages were established, and influential party elders hand-picked promising technocrats for promotion. Li Keqiang was one of these technocrats, chosen for his potential to contribute to the party’s future leadership.
Ambitious Upbringing and Political Development
Li Keqiang was born in Anhui province and experienced the political upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s that followed Mao’s death. He was among the first generation of students allowed to attend college after the Cultural Revolution, studying law and later economics at prestigious Peking University. Despite his exposure to student democracy activists, Li chose to join the Communist Party and spent several years working in the Communist Youth League, which cultivates young party members and serves as a patronage network within China’s political system. His affiliation with the Youth League was a crucial factor in his rise to power.
Li’s Rise and Ouster
In the late 1990s, Li Keqiang transitioned from the Youth League into government roles and soon began running provinces, including Henan and later Liaoning. He was considered a potential successor to Hu Jintao as president and Communist Party chief within the “fifth generation” of leaders following Mao. However, when Li and Xi Jinping were both promoted to the elite Politburo Standing Committee in 2007, it became apparent that Xi had surpassed Li in power and influence. Over the years, Li was marginalized as Xi assumed control over almost all aspects of policymaking.
Li’s Vision for China’s Economy
As premier, Li Keqiang sought to make China’s economy more innovative and productivity-driven. He advocated for a lighter touch of government intervention and opening new sectors of the economy to attract business. Li aimed to reduce taxes and bureaucratic red tape, although his success in achieving these goals was mixed. Nevertheless, he possessed a deep understanding of the Chinese government and was a proficient implementer of Xi’s policies. Despite the economic challenges faced during his tenure, including the COVID-19 pandemic, Li remained committed to China’s opening and development.
Implications for China’s Future
Li Keqiang’s death comes at a critical time for China, as the country grapples with a sluggish economy, strained relations with the West, and uncertainties surrounding Xi Jinping’s rule. The unexplained removal of two cabinet ministers in recent weeks has further heightened concerns about the future direction of the Chinese government. The passing of Li, who represented a potential alternative to Xi’s concentrated power, may raise questions about the long-term stability and viability of China’s political system.
Editorial: Lessons Learned and the Path Forward
The death of Li Keqiang highlights the challenges of institutionalizing power and creating a balanced leadership structure within a one-party system. Despite initial hopes for change and inclusivity, Li’s tenure as premier was overshadowed by Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power, rendering Li’s role largely ceremonial. This raises questions about the effectiveness of attempts to limit the concentration of power in China’s Communist Party and the long-term sustainability of a leadership model centered around one dominant figure.
The Dangers of Concentrated Power
Limited institutional checks on power can lead to the consolidation of authority in the hands of a few, diminishing the diversity of perspectives and stifling dissent. This can undermine effective decision-making and hinder the development of innovative policies that cater to the needs and aspirations of the entire population. The concentration of power also poses risks to long-term stability, as the sudden removal or death of a dominant leader can create uncertainties and power struggles within the party.
The Importance of Institutionalization
Li Keqiang’s failed attempt to institutionalize the Communist Party underscores the significance of building strong institutions that can provide checks and balances on power. Transparent and accountable systems are crucial for promoting stability, fairness, and the well-being of citizens. Institutions should be designed to withstand political transitions and ensure the continuity of governance, preventing abrupt policy reversals and potential disruptions to the economy and society.
Seeking Balance in Leadership
China’s leadership structure should prioritize a more balanced distribution of power and responsibilities. The concentration of authority in one individual can hinder innovation, consensus-building, and inclusive decision-making. Cultivating a diverse pool of talented leaders who bring different perspectives and expertise will contribute to more robust and sustainable governance. This approach would also help to address the challenges and complexities of the rapidly evolving domestic and global landscapes.
Advice for China’s Future
In light of Li Keqiang’s passing and the challenges faced by China, it is crucial for the country to reflect on its political system and leadership model. Emphasizing the importance of institutionalization, diversifying leadership, and promoting transparency and accountability will be vital for the country’s continued development and stability.
China should invest in reinforcing its institutions to ensure transparent decision-making processes, accountability, and the protection of individual rights. This can be achieved through reforms that enhance judicial independence, promote a free press, and enable robust civil society participation. By strengthening institutions, China can cultivate a culture of openness, intellectual curiosity, and innovation.
Promoting Leadership Diversity
China should actively cultivate a diverse and inclusive leadership pool that extends beyond a single dominating figure. This can be achieved through mechanisms that identify and promote talented individuals from different backgrounds, regions, and disciplines. Encouraging the development of leadership skills and fostering a culture of debate and collaboration will help nurture leaders who can effectively address the complex challenges facing the nation.
Engaging in Dialogue and Collaboration
China should actively engage in international dialogue and collaboration to bring fresh perspectives and exchange best practices. Openness to different ideas and a willingness to learn from others will enhance China’s ability to navigate the global stage and contribute to the development of mutually beneficial relationships.
The passing of Li Keqiang marks the end of an era in Chinese politics, symbolizing the challenges of institutionalizing power and building a balanced leadership structure within a one-party system. China must introspect and consider reforms that strengthen institutions, promote leadership diversity, and foster dialogue and collaboration. By doing so, China can navigate the complexities of a rapidly changing world and secure a stable and prosperous future for its citizens.
<< photo by Clark Tibbs >>
The image is for illustrative purposes only and does not depict the actual situation.