Premier Li Keqiang: Is he in the midst of a struggle over the facts about China’s economy? Image from Chatham House, available at Flickr.com under CC license.
On Wednesday afternoon, two days after the State Council introduced a 33-point plan to stabilize China’s struggling economy, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克强) hosted a video conference that was reportedly attended by more than 100,000 government officials at all levels. According to an unofficial transcript of the call circulating on Chinese social media, National Development and Reform Commission head He Lifeng (何立峰) said ahead of Li’s conference speech that the economy had been weighed down since March by various “risks and challenges” including the ongoing pandemic and the “Ukraine crisis.”
The transcript indicated that economic pressures are in many ways worse than those experienced in 2020, and clearly signaled also that local government financing is in a difficult state. Li revealed at the conference, for example, that land-sale revenue, a crucial source of income for many local governments, is down nearly 30 percent in the recent few months, and that “recently several provinces have reported to the State Council that they will need to borrow money.”
A meeting of this scale is an extremely rare occurrence in China. Some chatter online has connected the conference historically with the so-called Seven Thousand Cadres Conference (七千人大会) of February 7, 1962, when Party officials from across the country gathered to address the dramatic failures of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), and Mao Zedong issued a self-criticism (检讨) in which he shouldered responsibility as chairman for the errors of the Central Committee.
It is a tempting comparison given recent signs in the official press that seem to some to indicate that Li Keqiang’s star is rising (as those of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping did briefly in 1962), and that Xi Jinping might be facing political headwinds with the CCP. As I said in my analysis last week of People’s Daily front pages, trying to lower temperatures and slow heartbeats – “the signals abound, and confuse.”
Just six months ago, in the wake of a major CCP resolution on its history that paved the way for the general secretary’s political coronation this year with his “Xi Jinping Thought,” we might simply have expected his star to burner higher and brighter, an unquestioned Red Giant. Are we witnessing cosmic shifts in the politics of the Chinese Communist Party?
For now, we have rarities, but few certainties.
Certainly, the rarities continue, inviting all manner of speculation as we are just months ahead of the crucial CCP congress. The appearance online of the transcript from the Hundred Thousand Cadres Conference (if I may) is itself an extreme rarity. Then there are the apparent inconsistencies in reporting within the Party-run media, which would seem to indicate a rift in messaging within the leadership over the exact nature of the challenges facing the country.
While every indication from the transcript of remarks from Li and others yesterday is that China is in a serious situation requiring urgent solutions, there is little suggestion of this on the State Council’s own website. Neither an official transcript nor a more detailed readout has appeared today. What we have instead is a bland Xinhua News Agency release (Chinese HERE) in which Li stresses the need to “implement policies to stabilize [the] economy.” The release has nothing of the sense of urgency that comes through in the unofficial online transcript.
Another curiosity is an article posted online yesterday by the Economic Daily (经济日报), a central-level CCP newspaper directly under the State Council, and regarded as an important “public opinion position” (舆论阵地) for the Party in the conduct of its economic work. Called “Viewing the Current Economic Situation with a Comprehensive Dialectical View” (全面辩证看待当前经济形势), the article was run in full late last night by Xinhua, and today appears not just on the front page of the print edition of the Economic Daily, but also on page 11 of the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily.
While Li’s transcript, full of specifics about the current situation, voices concern over the possibility of China’s economy slipping out of the “reasonable range” (合理增长), the Economic Daily piece calls lamely for “scientific judgement” (科学判断) of the situation, and for “firm confidence” (坚定信心). It responds with platitudes, urging a calmness and positivity that perhaps those provincial leaders approaching the State Council about cash infusions do not feel existentially.
“We should both scientifically and rationally recognize the current economic situation, grasping and coping with the impact of short-term fluctuations, and facing up to and addressing difficulties and pressures,” the article reads. “But [we] must also have longer-term cyclic understanding of the intrinsic laws and trends of the Chinese economy, grasping its potential, resilience and bottom-line strength.”
But aside from the marked different in tone and approach, we should note that while the Economic Daily commentary does allude to the April 29 meeting of the Politburo and Xi’s pledges of “macroeconomic policy adjustments,” it makes no mention whatsoever of the Hundred Thousand Cadres Conference yesterday. Nor does it mention Premier Li Keqiang.
These are curious signals in what we might now assume will be a curious year.