5th March 2023 – (Beijing) Chinese Premier Li Keqiang delivered his final report at the Great Hall of the People this morning, bidding farewell to the political arena in just one hour. With the entire Chinese Communist Party (CCP) now being controlled by the “Xi faction”, Li Keqiang, who was once considered a promising reformer, has exited the stage as an era comes to an end.

According to Economic Daily, Li Keqiang is widely regarded as the weakest Premier since China’s reform and opening-up. He was expected to oversee China’s economy, but under CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s leadership over the past decade, the previous “collective leadership” has transformed into a “centralised power.” As a result, Li’s role became awkward because he no longer had sole decision-making power over economic policies. Through the Central Leading Group for Financial and Economic Affairs and the Central Committee for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, Xi took away the traditional economic power of the Premier, leaving the State Council as a mere obedient institution.

Under the strongman politics of Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang found it difficult to execute China’s economic transformation, leaving unfinished business. At the beginning of his tenure, the “Li Keqiang Economics,” which aimed to delegate power to the market and benefit from it by avoiding stimulus measures, deleveraging, and structural reforms, was once a celebrated approach. However, when the steering wheel was out of his control, economic policies became somewhat contradictory.

China’s strong supervision of real estate, the internet, and its persistent “zero-COVID-19” policy have all severely impacted small and medium-sized enterprises, leading to broken supply chains and declining consumer confidence, resulting in a GDP growth rate of only 3% in 2022.

Compared to last year’s final press conference, where Li Keqiang stated, “I believe that under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China’s economy will be able to climb over any obstacles and achieve the main goals of economic and social development for the year,” the present reality is particularly ironic.

Li Keqiang, was once seen as the leader who would uphold Deng Xiaoping’s developmental strategy. However, whether he possessed the power to do so remains debatable. Perhaps this is the Chinese people’s spiritual yearning for their “people’s premier.” Last year, rumours of “Li to rise and Xi to step down” were rampant but ultimately proved to be baseless.

There was a time when the Chinese people believed that the current generation of leaders, including Li Keqiang, who had experienced the Cultural Revolution, would bring unlimited hope to China. Li and other more liberal members of the Communist Party were the first generation of college students after the resumption of the national college entrance examination. They were pragmatic, enlightened, and relatively diverse political elites.

Ten years have passed since Li Keqiang became the Premier, and there has been no political reform. Instead, China has reverted to centralised power and personal worship, heading towards a regression. In terms of the economy, the “Li Keqiang economics” has been difficult to implement.

“An era without reform” might be the best explanation for his term. He may not have been able to speak out like his predecessors, Premier Wen Jiabao and Premier Zhu Rongji, the former of whom admitted that China needed political reform, while the latter carried out bold reforms to the economic system.

However, he did say one truthful thing, “China has 600 million people with middle and low incomes or below.” He uttered these words a year before President Xi Jinping was to accomplish the poverty alleviation campaign. Given the challenges China’s economy faces today, this statement has profound implications.

Wang Yang, the chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), who is also seen as one of the reformists, gave his last CPPCC report on 4th March. Both Li and Wang, who belong to the “Youth League faction,” were not re-elected to the Central Committee at the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. After this session of the two meetings, the Youth League faction is basically exiting the political stage in China.