China’s next Premier Li Keqiang, a protege of outgoing President Hu Jintao, is known as a cautious and pragmatic leader who is facing the arduous task of shepherding the world’s second largest economy amid lingering global economic slowdown.

57-year-old Li, who has been elevated to the Number 2 position in the ruling CPC’s hierarchy, has been China’s ‘Premier-in-Waiting’ as a Vice-Premier, overseeing key portfolios, such as macro-economic planning, health care, energy and housing.

Li, who will succeed Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in March, is known for not making no big pronouncements, no off-the-cuff remarks, no mistakes.

He is known for caring about China’s less well-off, perhaps as a result of a modest upbringing.

Li is considered a carbon copy of Hu, his mentor and benefactor, because of similarities in background, priorities and style.

The son of a minor county official in east China’s Anhui, a poor province where Hu was also born, Li was a teenager when Mao Zedong’s disastrous decade-long ‘Cultural Revolution’ interrupted his schooling.

As a youth who needed “re-education through labour”, he worked on the farm for four years. There, at age 21, he joined the Communist Party.

He worked with Hu in the Communist Youth League (CYL), a training ground for party and government officials.

There was also speculation that Li was Hu’s preferred successor but finally the top job of the Communist Party General-Secretary went to Xi Jinping.

Li, who studied law at Beijing’s prestigious Peking University, was chosen as deputy party secretary for central China’s Henan Province in 1998, and at the age of 43 became China’s youngest provincial governor in 1999.

But his tenure in the rural and heavily populated Henan province was marked by a series of setbacks, including fires and the spread of HIV through contaminated blood, which could have ended his political ambitions if not backed by Hu.

He did a better job reviving Henan’s economy, and then impressed many by his work in Liaoning, China’s industrial rustbelt in the northeast which has been hit hard by reforms to state-owned industry.

One of his top priorities now will be to boost China’s economic growth, which is currently export-led, amid weak demand for manufactured goods in Europe and the US.

Li advocates social equity and is sceptical of bureaucracy.

A confidential US embassy memo published on the WikiLeaks Web site describes Li as telling the then-US Ambassador in Beijing that local economic data was “for reference only”.

He acknowledged official corruption as the biggest source of public anger and thought the effective solution was to create transparent rules and adequate supervision.

Unlike his predecessors, Li speaks fairly good English.

As in the case of other top Chinese leaders, not much is known of Li’s personal life.

Local media reported that he is married to Cheng Hong, a professor in Beijing, and they have a daughter, who is thought to be studying in the US.

(This article was published on November 15, 2012)
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