Sanjay Pulipaka, writing in Asia Times said that the Chinese official media are giving more space to the premier, and there is growing speculation that Li is taking control of economic policy.
For instance, at a mega-national teleconference with more than 100,000 participants, Li called on local authorities to “earnestly implement policies to stabilize the economy and support market entities, employment and people’s livelihoods.”
The 20th National Congress of the CPC will be held later this year, and it may herald leadership changes. Therefore, Li Keqiang’s recent moves are getting more attention from domestic and international observers.
While there is no hard rule, the Chinese premier is generally in charge of economic policy. However, President Xi has sidelined Premier Li, said Pulipaka.
For instance, in 2013, Xi “headed the Leading Group on Comprehensively Deepening Reform.”
Similarly, in 2020, Li was not present at a symposium to discuss China’s 14th Five Year Plan, and Xi steered the conversations.
As a consequence of getting marginalized, the premier was never in a position to implement his economic philosophy fully, which is based on three pillars: “ending fiscal stimulus, deleveraging, and structural reforms.”
However, the dual challenges of resurgent outbreaks of COVID-19 and subsequent economic challenges have given space for Li Keqiang to regain control of economic policymaking.
Li has a short window in which to restore confidence in the economy, as he will retire this year after completing two full five-year terms as premier.
According to usual practices, Xi Jinping should also step down during the 20th Party Congress and hand over the baton to a successor.
However, a constitutional amendment in 2018 eliminated term limits, opening the possibility for Xi to remain as president for additional terms. At the moment, there is no designated political heir or a visible challenger to Xi.
In his retirement message, Li noted that Xi would be at the core of the Party Central Committee, indicating that Xi may get a third term. If Xi Jinping gets one more term, it will herald a significant shift in Chinese politics.
However, in the run-up to the 20th Party Congress, there will be considerable power play and posturing for other offices between various factions in the party. The CPC is not a homogeneous entity and has many factions within it.
Moreover, if the economic crisis deepens, the subdued murmurs against Xi will gain greater momentum. Of course, Xi’s team may look for a scapegoat to carry the albatross of economic mismanagement, reported Asia Times.
However, given that was sidelined in a very visible manner, the possibility of making him carry the proverbial can of worms is limited. In fact, Li is better placed to impact the political process, and it appears that the premier is determined to achieve the following four political goals.
First, while Li cannot continue as premier because of term limits, he can still be a member of the Standing Committee of the Central Political Bureau of the CPC.
Second, an important objective for Li would be to appoint people to high offices to hasten the pace of reforming state-owned enterprises and create conditions to carry forward the structural reform.
Third, Li may get a fellow faction leader (such as Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua) appointed as premier, who can serve as a check and balance to the president’s office.
Fourth, if some of the above political objectives are not achieved, Li and his faction may seek to increase their presence in Politburo and associated platforms.
In the next few months, the economy’s performance will have a significant bearing on the outcomes of the 20th National Congress of the CPC.
If Xi eases pandemic-related lockdowns, then there is a possibility that there may be an increased incidence of the Covid virus in the country. On the other hand, the continuation of severe lockdowns is negatively impacting the economy.
Either way, Xi’s credibility is getting dented. Therefore, he will have to make tough choices in the coming months, said Pulipaka.