Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang last week urged a reported 100,000 local government officials to take immediate action to “stabilize” the situation in China, amid dismay and anger at the fallout from his commitment to ‘zero COVID’.
Li said at an executive meeting of the State Council via video link that the Chinese economy faced an even greater challenge than at the start of the pandemic in 2020, according to Xinhua, China’s state news agency, when employment, industrial production and consumption were all collapsed.
It was an extraordinary call from the Prime Minister, a trained economist who has been sidelined for much of his two terms in office, despite holding the second most powerful position in China.
Online, the meeting has also been compared by some to a 1962 summit where Communist Party officials admitted to the failure of the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous campaign to modernize China’s economy that led to a brutal famine, according to the China Media Project.
While the meeting speaks volumes about concerns within the Chinese Communist Party about the country’s economic future, Li’s re-emergence into the limelight may also indicate concerns about the future of China’s political system.
Once seen as a potential presidential candidate by former President Hu Jintao’s faction, Li has been largely sidelined as prime minister since taking office nearly a decade ago.
He was recently given the responsibility of overseeing China’s pandemic response, but the controversial “zero-COVID” policy is attributed to President Xi Jinping, who seems unwilling to accept anything less than an all-out victory over the virus.
Zero COVID, however, has placed Xi in political hot water.
The policy has kept tens of millions of people under some form of lockdown since the beginning of the year, as well as strangling some of China’s key industries, including manufacturing.
Shanghai, China’s main economic city and home to many of the country’s elite, is just coming out of a lockdown that began in late March.
Beijing seems to be locked in anything but name.
Read between the lines
Li’s recent forum and his re-emergence may also point to problems beyond the economy, analysts say.
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 glimpse into the party’s thinking.
However, the recent signals have been confusing to analysts such as David Bandurski, the co-director of the China Media Project. After standing in front of Xi for many months, the president was absent from the front page of the People’s Daily five times in May — just below the unofficial threshold that something could be going on, 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 intensifying speculation.
“From late April to May, in line with new questions about Shanghai’s handling of COVID and pressures on the economy, signals were mixed to some extent. It hasn’t always been Xi,” Bandurski told Al Jazeera by email.
“This has led to speculation that Xi may be facing headwinds within the party for his handling of the crisis — and that this could be an opportunity for Li, who may have very different ideas about where to go with the economy.”
Bandurski said internal party thinking may become clearer in June and July ahead of the 20th National Party Congress, where Xi is expected to pursue an unprecedented third term in office after constitutionally cleared the way in 2018. For now, he said, the media can just as easily be expected to glorify Xi as a more ambivalent message from the party.
Internal political struggle
Adam Ni, the co-founder of the China Neican newsletter, also said Li’s sudden re-emergence into the limelight would suggest some factions within the Chinese leadership are concerned about Xi’s third term and the impact of his zero-COVID policy. .
“Both within the party and outside the party, people are concerned about the centralization of power around Xi,” Ni told Al Jazeera. “I think we can read Li’s increasing fame in that context. I think there are more people who are trying to express their concern about Xi Jinping’s centralization of power and the possible future by supporting Li Keqiang in some way.”
However, Ni said it would be a mistake to think that Li is now in a position to counterbalance Xi, who has spent his first two terms in office building personal power at the expense of his prime minister.
“I think Xi is probably making a tactical retreat on the economy, so let Li take on the economic troubles, if things go wrong, you blame the prime minister, and when things go well, it’s in favor of Xi, and it relieves some of the internal pressure,” Ni said.
For Li, his re-emergence into the limelight could also extend his political career.
“It’s always been our basic assumption that Li Keqiang would stay on in some capacity after the 20th party congress — most likely as head of the legislature,” said Trey McArver, a partner at foreign policy startup Trivium China.
“I think the recent criticism of Xi and his way of dealing with the economy strengthens Li’s hand and makes it more likely that he will stay on. We currently estimate he has a 67.2 percent chance of doing that.”