AFTER the National People’s Congress made him prime minister on March 15th, Li Keqiang declared that “screaming yourself hoarse” was not as good as “rolling up your sleeves and getting to work”. This appeared to be an attempt by Mr Li to distance himself from his predecessor, Wen Jiabao, who stepped down after ten years in the job.
Some critics inside the Communist Party call Mr Wen’s time in office China’s lost decade. He always talked about the need for bold change, including political reforms, but fell short in actions. It did not help that his wife and relatives appear to have accumulated assets worth billions of dollars during his time in power.
Mr Li, who is 57, takes over an economy that has grown tremendously. But the problems which Mr Wen inherited have only got worse. They include official corruption; environmental damage; widening gaps between rich and poor, cities and countryside; and growth that is overly reliant on investment and credit flowing to state-owned enterprises. He also inherits an unwieldy political system that makes it hard to deal with these problems.
The prime minister is just one of a collective of overstretched party leaders. Policy changes must overcome opposition from any number of vested interests, including local governments, state banks and rich, politically connected families. Unlike Mr Wen, Mr Li appears to be managing expectations downwards. “Sometimes,” he said at his inaugural press conference, “stirring vested interests may be more difficult than stirring the soul”.
Mr Li has an advantage in coming to office with apparently little wealth. His wife, a respected academic, is reckoned to have no business dealings. In what some see as a jab at his predecessor (and, indeed, at much of the political establishment), Mr Li said that “clean government should start with oneself. Only if one is upright himself should he ask others to be upright.” After entering public service, “we should give up all thought of making money.”
The son of a local party official in east-central Anhui province, Mr Li was sent to work in the countryside towards the end of the Cultural Revolution. He went on to earn a PhD in economics at Peking University, where he began his rise through the ranks of the Communist Youth League. He eventually led the league, as his patron, the outgoing president, Hu Jintao, had done.