Friday, March 15, 2013

China appoints Li Keqiang as new Premie

BEIJING, March 15, 2013

China's Communist Party on Friday moved towards concluding its leadership transition with the expected appointment of second-ranked Politburo Standing Committee member Li Keqiang as the country's next Premier.

Mr. Li (57), who was anointed as the successor of outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao five years ago, will take over the reins of the world's second-largest economy as the head of the State Council, or Cabinet, which sets economic policies.

The new Premier is seen in China as the protégé of former President Hu Jintao, who stepped down on Thursday. The new CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping, appointed as the head of the party and military last year, was formally selected as Mr. Hu\'s replacement on Thursday by the National People's Congress (NPC), or Parliament. Mr. Li rose through party ranks in the Communist Youth League, where Mr. Hu has his power base.

Mr. Li was selected at an elaborate \"voting\" session here on Friday morning, by the NPC's 3,000 or so delegates who cast their ballot in a "one candidate election" – while delegates were only allowed to vote no or abstain, they could not back another candidate in the selection process. The close to 3,000 members of the NPC, seen as a largely rubber-stamp Parliament that follows the Party's lead, only cast three no votes against Mr. Li.

Mr. Li is one of few top party leaders with a law degree — unique in a leadership largely dominated by engineers — and he also speaks fluent English.

He graduated from the elite Peking University during the political upheaval of the 1980s, when the school was a centre of liberal activism. Many of Mr. Li's friends became student leaders during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Mr. Li, despite his close links to outgoing leader Hu Jintao, is seen by Chinese analysts as having a good equation with new leader Xi Jinping, raising expectations that the new administration will be able to be more effective than the previous leadership in bringing about a consensus in the party for bolder reform measures.

Moves to make "government smaller" by dissolving two Cabinet-level ministries, including the once powerful Ministry of Railways, with an aim to increase efficiency were approved by the NPC on Thursday, and seen by Chinese analysts as a sign of intent from the new leadership that they were prepared to take difficult measures.

In recent public appearances, Mr. Li has made out a strong case for reforms. He told a conference in December, "Reform is like rowing upstream. Failing to advance means falling back. Those who refuse to (make) reform may not make mistakes, but they will be blamed for not assuming their historical responsibility".

Wen Jiabao steps down

Mr. Li's appointment brings an end to Wen Jiabao's decade-long term. Mr. Wen was seen, during his term, as a rare figure among China's top leadership who cultivated an image of a populist leader – he famously wept with the victims of the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008 when he met with families, standing on the rubble.

While seen as "a man of the people" by many Chinese and often referred to as "Grandpa Wen", the former Premier has faced some recent criticism for his handling of the economy, particularly following the financial crisis when China unveiled a massive 4 trillion Yuan ($ 643 billion) stimulus package which some analysts said exacerbated severe imbalances in the economy, even if it prevented a major downturn. Mr. Wen has defended his economic policies in recent speeches, pointing out that China's decisive response avoided job losses and allowed the country to weather the financial crisis.

Wen's contested legacy

His ten-year term oversaw an unprecedented rise in China's global influence, with the country becoming the world's second-largest economy. His administration also devoted greater attention, and resources, to bringing development to rural China and western provinces that have lagged behind the prosperous east. Moves to abolish agricultural taxes and to substantially widen the coverage of health insurance in rural areas were among its flagship policy decisions.

Yet despite the many achievements of the past decade, one Chinese journalist The Hindu spoke to said he was struck by the "tragic figure" Mr. Wen has cast in recent public appearances, hinting at the recent criticism he has faced. During a visit to a residential community in Beijing last month, one of his last public outings, Mr.Wen said he "felt responsible for the imperfections" in China's development.

"Over the recent years, I have been working for the good of the people and made some accomplishments, but that was not enough to repay the kindness from the people. I have done my best, but still feel that I did not make it perfect enough," he said. "I feel sorry and often blame myself for the imperfections in the government's work, and I hope you can forgive me for that."

Mr. Wen has also faced criticism over his family's wealth, particularly in the wake of a New York Times report last year that detailed that his relatives had amassed a $ 2.7 billion fortune. He is known to have privately expressed regret that he did not prevent his children and wife from limiting their domestic business interests.

Push for reforms

He has, however, remained a popular figure among progressive sections in China for being the only top leader who has frequently stressed the need for political reforms. Although efforts to push measures largely stalled, Mr. Wen's utterances were seen as at least allowing Chinese journalists an opportunity to more strongly push for an issue that was earlier seen as too sensitive to even mention.

Mr. Wen was seen the face of the party's liberal Right, particularly after he took on the former Politburo member Bo Xilai, who was expelled from the CPC last year and cultivated a following with a resurgent "New Left" through his neo-Maoist policies.

In rare public criticism of a fellow Politburo member, Mr. Wen last year hit out at Mr. Bo, who is now awaiting trial, for violating the CPC's consensus, reached in 1978 at its third plenum, to draw a line over Mao's Cultural Revolution and to push forward reforms. "Any practice we take must be based on experience and lessons we have gained from history and serve the people\'s interest," Mr. Wen said about Mr. Bo's controversial policies. "I believe the people fully recognise this point," he said.

He said then he would leave office "with the courage to face history". "There are people who will appreciate what I have done but there are also people who will criticise me," he said. "Ultimately, history will have the final say."
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