Li Keqiang
Ready for take-off: Li Keqiang, who takes over as China’s premier in a few weeks, was identified early as a candidate for high office but he has a chequered professional past © Corbis

He helped cover up an Aids scandal that wiped out entire villages. While he was a provincial governor, hundreds died in a series of big fires. But he did not resign in disgrace or go to prison. Instead, he is about to become China’s next premier.

Li Keqiang is one of the men the Communist party of China will present a few weeks from now as the country’s leaders for the next decade.

And, although there are myriad complex challenges ahead in running the world’s most populous nation, the party looks set to choose a line-up not of the most outstanding but of those, like Mr Li, most adept at navigating its internal politics.

More than 20 years ago, when the Soviet Union collapsed, many in the west celebrated the victory of democracy over communism as the “end of history”. But the Communist party of China is still hanging on. In fact, after its bloody suppression of the pro-democracy uprising in 1989 that threatened to topple it, the party sparked an economic boom that pulled tens of millions out of poverty and transformed the country into the world’s second-largest economy.

However, its own ability to change has not kept up. Now in its seventh decade, it has yet to create a transparent system of governance for itself – a failure highlighted by fevered speculation about the disappearance of Xi Jinping, the vice-president expected to be promoted to party chief and state president. The party sticks to rigid Leninist structures increasingly at odds with the market economy and pluralist society it helped create. While fierce competition has become the norm in the private sector, the party is as cautious and conservative as ever when it comes to grooming cadres.

“In theory officials are picked through a bottom-up process but in practice the decisions are made top-down,” says Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution, the Washington-based think-tank.

This system was fairly efficient in the era of Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s economic reforms and paramount leader until his death in 1997. Just like Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, Deng drew authority from the fact that he had fought in the revolution. But after he abandoned Mao’s frequent political campaigns such as the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward in favour of market reforms, and the challenges of 1989, staying in power became the organising principle. Communist ideology was no longer the force that kept everything together.

“In the era of Deng Xiaoping, they could do a lot of things because they were revolutionaries, they had political capital. But now our politicians are all bureaucrats who have risen through the ranks,” says Ren Yi, a liberal “princeling”, as the offspring of senior party officials are known. The Harvard-educated financial industry executive is the grandson of Ren Zhongyi, formerly party secretary of Guangdong province and one of the party’s most outspoken proponents of political reform.

“To put it simply, they are more mediocre – they are not leaders but just follow policy,” he says. “Those who are sharp and independent-minded will be eliminated by the system, and the most obedient ones, the ones without edges, will get promoted.”

That rule was a factor, though not the only one, behind this year’s purge of Bo Xilai, the populist former party secretary of Chongqing who was on track to ascend to a leadership position. After Mr Bo’s removal, his wife was charged with the murder of a British businessman.

The principle of favouring those who fall into line is at play in selecting the next leadership. Li Keqiang is seen as a prime example. His biography closely mirrors that of Hu Jintao, the current party chief and state president, and Mr Li’s mentor. Their families come from the same province, and, like Mr Hu, Mr Li rose through the Communist youth league and served as provincial governor and party secretary.

People who knew Mr Li early in his career describe him as someone easy to get along with who avoids controversy. He was identified as a candidate for top office early on. “When he became Communist party youth league head at Peking University in 1982, everyone knew already that he was going to be a senior leader one day,” says Peng Dingding, a freelance writer who knew Mr Li as a student.

However, Mr Li’s administrative career is short on achievements and long on disastrous events. An old saying calls for officials to start a posting with “three fires”, a metaphor referring to outstanding policies. But after Mr Li took over as governor of Henan in 1998, three fires in the central province claimed hundreds of lives and earned him the nickname “Three Fires Li”.

Mr Li was later promoted to the province’s party secretary, an office he held until 2004. Under his watch, an Aids epidemic raged in the inland province. The problem had been created before his arrival by a commercial blood-selling scheme propagated by the previous administration to boost the local economy. Residents in many of the poorer, rural parts of the province were encouraged to sell blood to merchants who extracted the plasma and then injected the donors with the remaining blood.

As infections spread in the late 1990s, entire villages were left to die. According to Henan health officials and Aids campaigners, Mr Li’s government focused on covering up the epidemic, and suppressing attempts by victims to seek help and by doctors and non-government organisations to inform and assist people. In a widely reported example, Gao Yaojie, a doctor, identified the problem early but was put under house arrest by provincial authorities and prevented from educating villagers and seeking policy debate higher up. Provincial authorities continued their persecution of doctors, villagers and Aids campaigners until Beijing intervened in 2003.

“Under Chinese law, Li Keqiang as the top government official in the province at the time should have borne the political responsibility for this,” says Wan Yanhai, a prominent Aids activist who left the country in 2010 because of political persecution.

“The party leadership was protecting Li Keqiang because he had already been chosen as a leader,” says Hu Jia, another dissident, who worked with Mr Wan to combat the spread of Aids in Henan during Mr Li’s term there.

For those in the system, all this makes sense. “Nowadays China doesn’t emphasise ideology – it’s relationships that are most important,” says Mr Ren. “I know you better, I promote you, so there is a mutual agreement and recognition between us.”

While the shift has made the party more pragmatic, it has also given rise to corruption. Observers both inside and outside the party see these factional and patron-client ties, which have become the cornerstone of Communist party rule, as the main reason for increasing inertia about reform.

But Beijing nonetheless shows flexibility when it comes to adapting to outside changes. Despite ample evidence from around the world, particularly the Arab uprisings, that the internet can help topple dictatorships, the party has embraced social media. It censors popular Twitter-like micro­blogs – but it also encourages them, and tries to use them to understand public opinion better and to convey its own messages. The police and party propaganda departments, for example, have their own accounts.

The party also continuously tweaks its own institutions. When it picked new provincial leadership teams this year ahead of the national transition, likely to be in October, it reduced the number of police chiefs in control of the politics and law portfolio – a post that oversees the security services, prosecutors’ offices and courts. The party leadership is also expected to downgrade the politics and law portfolio at central level by abolishing its leader’s seat on the nine-member politburo standing committee, the most powerful decision-making body. These changes were triggered by the recognition that the security services had been helping Mr Bo build a power base of his own.

The party has also experimented with intraparty elections. However, these reform attempts have almost completely ground to a halt.

But there is a growing sense both outside the party and within that China’s changed society and economy have outgrown this political system. “We all hope that the new leaders will learn from [former Russian president Boris] Yeltsin and embrace bold political reforms,” says a veteran party member in Henan, one of the most politically conservative provinces.

Lin Zhe, a professor at the Central Party School in Beijing, says: “We will definitely have fully competitive elections even for our top leaders including the party secretary-general eventually.” Although she warns reforms have entered a period where progress is much more difficult and dangerous, she asserts: “Democracy is a global trend nobody can stem. Officials will work harder and be more conscientious if they have to run for office.”

Some say this day will come a lot sooner than the party thinks. “I consider myself lucky to live in these exciting times. China is about to see big changes,” says Hu Jia. “I believe that we’ll have general elections by 2020.”

Critics of the party argue that Mr Bo’s removal from his political posts was the purge of a politician who moved in this direction – who dared to campaign openly for popular support and thus challenged the rules of the game. “His example shows that we’re already on the verge of a multi-party system,” says a dissident who was once involved in the organisation of a democratic party. “He has a programme and he has a support base. On the other end of the spectrum, you have [premier] Wen Jiabao with a contrasting programme and an opposing support base. Take this just a little further, and the Communist party will split into two.”

External challenges to the party have also increased. Activists say the claim that there is nothing to replace the Communist party no longer holds. “The legacy of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao is the emergence of a pluralist society,” says the head of an unofficial Beijing Christian “house church”. “Civil society is booming, and we will see NGOs gain influence on politics.”

This is not what Mr Xi and Mr Li have been groomed for. But some observers believe they have a chance to survive the political changes ahead if they follow the path of Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. As Taiwanese president, the younger Chiang paved the way for democratisation in Taiwan in the 1980s with steps such as lifting a ban on independent media and political parties.

“People here don’t want a revolution,” says the dissident. “It is up to the Communist party itself if China goes down the path of Taiwan or of Romania.”

Additional reporting by Jamil Anderlini

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