Chinese premier Li Keqiang bows to delegates after delivering his work report during the opening session of the National People's Congress

‘A defeated person’: sidelined by Xi, China’s Li Keqiang bows out as premier

Hopes that Li would be a liberal reformer were curbed by Xi Jinping as the president became more and more powerful

In a farewell speech after serving 10 years as China’s number two leader, the premier, Li Keqiang, had a cryptic message for his staff: “While people work, heaven watches. Heaven has eyes.”

His unusually candid words, seen in a video clip on social media but unreported by official media, stoked speculation about whether he was making a veiled attack on President Xi Jinping.

Li’s words betrays a deep sense of frustration over a decade in which he could have exerted his largely reformist agenda but was hamstrung by being in the shadow of a political strongman and other crises, according to Dr Wang Juntao, a friend of Li at the prestigious Peking University 40 years ago.

“This is [the voice of] a defeated person … who hopes that the divinity would vindicate him,” said Wang, a political dissident jailed in the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement and now living in exile in the US.

Li, who is bowing out at the end of the current parliamentary session and will be replaced by a Xi ally, is “the weakest premier after the Chinese Communist party took power in 1949”, said Chen Daoyin, a former professor of political science and law at Shanghai University.

When he became premier in 2013, there were high hopes that Li, who has studied western legal traditions and has a degree in law and a doctorate in economics, would be a liberal reformer.

But he was unable to make headway. Li might have led the world’s second-largest economy through a tough time marred by rising government debt, trade frictions with the US and the Covid pandemic, but his power was curbed by Xi, who placed his allies in key strategic positions over him.

Over the years, Li was increasingly sidelined as Xi – a red aristocrat with a respected party elder father – garnered greater power.

“Li was sidelined by Xi deliberately and in an openly humiliating way,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies. “He did not really have a chance to make much of an impact.”

People who have known Li portray him as an intelligent technocrat but pensive and cautious. They say he entered the Communist party with a noble ambition to contribute towards his country, but was stifled by its rigid bureaucracy.

Wang said it pained him to watch the once quick-witted, outspoken and independent-thinking intellectual deliver his last government work report to the rubber-stamp parliament on Monday. In the report, Li talked flatly on the government’s performance in an hour-long speech that lauded Xi Jinping as “the core of the party leadership” seven times.

Li Keqiang returns to his seat next to Xi Jinping at the opening session of the National People’s Congress

“We owe our achievements … to the strong leadership of the party central committee with comrade Xi Jinping at its core and the sound guidance of Xi Jinping Thought,” he told the National People’s Congress.

Wang said: “I think he must have felt heartbroken … having to read out every viewpoint that he must have opposed.”

‘The end of collective leadership’

Li, the son of a local official in the impoverished province of Anhui, rose up the ranks through his involvement in the Communist Youth League. By 1998 he was the country’s youngest governor, in the densely populated central province of Henan, later becoming party secretary.

After a stint as party chief of the northern province of Liaoning, he was promoted to be a vice-premier under former premier Wen Jiabao from 2008 to 2013, overseeing economic development and macroeconomic management.

Li was seen as former leader Hu Jintao’s preferred successor as president, but the leadership chose Xi Jinping, the son of party elder Xi Zhongxun, after weighing up factional interests.

Analysts said Li, constrained by his personality and kept out of the limelight by Xi, largely failed to make the most of the platforms he was given.

One of Li’s biggest faults was his inability to stop Xi from shifting the powers of the state council, China’s cabinet, to party institutions from 2018, Chen said. A further shift to bolster the Communist party’s control in state entities is being deliberated at the current congress meeting. It is expected to involve the incorporation of more government ministries – especially in the realm of finance, policing and the national security apparatus – into the Communist party system.

Chen says it was within Li’s power to stop Xi from “subverting” the spirit of the “reform and opening” policy launched in 1978, which diminished the party’s dominance in the government’s operation and paved the way for China’s stellar economic rise after the Cultural Revolution.

“But he showed no courage in insisting upon the legacy of Deng Xiaoping in separating the powers between the party and the government,” Chen said.

Analysts said Li would nonetheless be remembered for the moderating effect he had on Xi and his concern for ordinary people.

Li promoted the private economy and foreign investment, in contrast to Xi’s focus on state ownership, and he relied on data from private industry to parse the state of China’s economy. He once described China’s official GDP statistics as “man-made”, according to a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, and said he relied on data such as electricity consumption and rail cargo volumes to understand his own economy.

While party officials often condemn Hong Kong pro-democracy figures as traitors backed by “foreign hostile forces”, Li has stayed silent.

“Li will be remembered as the leader who did not forget the plight of the grassroots, and who advocated for ‘street hawker economy’ to create job opportunities for the underclass,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University.

“Without him, China’s leadership may achieve greater consensus, but it may be more prone to mistakes,” said Prof William Hurst, deputy director at the Centre for Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge.

Tsang said Li’s departure would “mark the end of collective leadership”. Dominated by Xi’s loyal allies, elite politics from now on “will be guided by how to please the boss most”.