There has been a great deal of speculation in media outside China lately that Li Keqiang (李克强), who is currently serving as party secretary in the northern province of Liaoning, will be pegged as Hu Jintao’s successor, or “crown prince” at the upcoming 17th National Congress. Without a doubt, Li Keqiang is one of the key figures to watch over the next few weeks. But as a note of caution, it would be careless to focus one’s attention entirely on Li. First, a bit of background. [Photo of Li Keqiang, from]


[Li Keqiang is featured on the front page of Henan’s Dahe Daily after taking a tour of the site of a mining disaster]

The so-called “crown prince”, or top leader, was simply referred to as the successor, or jiebanren, during the Mao Zedong era. After the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, Mao Zedong was both chairman of the party and the country’s top leader. Ten years later, in 1959, Mao relinquished his title as chairman of the People Republic and was succeeded by Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇). Liu Shaoqi’s vice-chairmanship was generally understood to be his successor.
The onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 brought the ouster of Liu Shaoqi. Lin Biao (林彪) became Mao’s designated successor, an arrangement formalized with an amendment to the Party Constitution.
When Wang Hongwen became vice-chairman at the 10th National Congress in 1973, it seemed certain he would become the successor, but Mao instead entrusted matters on the front line to Deng Xiaoping . Deng Xiaoping was later ousted amidst opposition from the Gang of Four, so that Hua Guofeng emerged for a time as Mao’s anointed successor.
After the onset of economic reforms, championed by Deng Xiaoping who had outmaneuvered and ousted Hua Guofeng by 1981, Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) and Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳) served in succession as China’s top leaders. But Deng Xiaoping remained in control. Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were still mere “successors,” and jiebanren. Eventually, both Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were forced to resign (January 1987 and June 1989 respectively), and Jiang Zemin became Deng Xiaoping’s successor.
What lessons does this messy process have for next month’s congress?
People now believe Hu Jintao has selected Li Keqiang as his successor, that Li will be elevated to the inner circle, serving as a member of the politburo standing committee and as vice-chairman of the PRC. He will have the important task of handling appointments within the party, and will perhaps serve concurrently as head of the Central Party School.
With all the speculation flying in his favor, would we really be ill-advised to place our bets on Li Keqiang? Yes. For the simple reason that Hu Jintao is not Deng Xiaoping.
Deng Xiaoping was a formidable leader with a virtually unassailable position — a qiang ren, as we say in Chinese). Hu Jintao is, by contrast, is a chang ren, an “ordinary leader”. In China, the politics of the powerful, or qiang ren zhengzhi (强人政治), have already given way to the politics of ordinary players, chang ren zhengzhi (常人政治). Top leaders in China today do not have sufficient power to designate their own successors. In the next generation of top leaders, the force of the individual politician will further weaken, and in its place will come more collective leadership.
Given this changing political climate, we must look more broadly at whole “succession groups.”, rather than focus narrowly on possible “successors,”  We must look, for example, at the possible configuration of the entire inner circle for the 18th National Congress five years down the road. Li Keqiang will of course be one of these leaders, so it is important to watch him closely.
(Qian Gang, September 12, 2007)
[Translated by David Bandurski]
Hong Kong’s Ming Pao reports on Li Keqiang and succession teams, September 19, 2007
Li Keqiang in Who’s Who in China’s Leadership,
Li Keqiang bio at ChinaVitae
The Next Hu?, Newsweek International, December 25, 2006
Tiananmen, 15 Years On: Where Are Some of the Most Wanted Participants Today?“, Human Rights Watch, 2004
The Party Congress Peg, China Digital Times, July 20, 2007Li Keqiang elected Party chief of NE China’s Liaoning Province, People’s Daily Online, October 27, 2006
Beijing prepares for battle“, Newsweek‘s The Bulletin, October 3, 2006
CMP Tip Sheet
Some things to take particular note of regarding Li Keqiang:
*The assessment made of Li Keqiang by his former Peking University classmate Wang Juntao , a political activist. [Link to Wang quote here].
*As an interesting detail, many within China’s media have a favorable impression of Li Keqiang. One veteran journalist at China Youth Daily recalls that Li was pretty familiar with journalists at the paper, and when the reporter in question attended a meeting in Henan Province, then-governor Li Keqiang went right up to him and greeted him warmly.

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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