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Asia

Technocrat with liberal past tipped to be next PM

Li Keqiang is expected to become China's next prime minister. Although reports say he was liberal as a student, he is the protégé of the more conservative outgoing president Hu Jintao.

It was a double-edged compliment. Wang Juntao, a dissident who has been in exile since 1994, wrote in a blog entry in 2004 that his former classmate at Beijing University, Li Keqiang, was a "thoughtful, lively and sharp-witted" student.

Li rose through the ranks of the Communist Youth League and Wang said he "always upheld the independent spirit of the students" in the 1980s. When he encountered him in 1989 on the fringes of the demonstrations on Tiananmen Square, he came across the "same sharp intellect and the same open mind."

At the time that these words appeared, Li was serving as party secretary of Liaoning in northeastern China and he was already being heralded as a possible successor to Hu Jintao, the secretary general of the Communist Party and head of state.

Premier Wen Jiabao

Premier Wen Jiabao took office in 2003

The matter "was hugely damaging for Li inside the party," explained Australian journalist Richard McGregor in his 2010 book "The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers."

Now Li Keqiang will have to be satisfied with the position of prime minister.

Hu Jintao belongs to the more conservative camp and Li is thought to be one of his protégés. Both come from the same poor province of Anhui in central China and both began their careers in the Communist Youth League.

Li was born in Dingyuan County. His father was a low-ranking government official. Like millions of other youths, he was sent to do manual labor in the country during the Cultural Revolution. He was sent to nearby Fengyuan Province. He joined the Communist Party in 1976.

After Mao died, Li Keqiang was one of the first students allowed to re-enter college. He studied law at Beijing University and later did a PhD in economics.

Overshadowed by disasters

After his career in student politics, he became party secretary and governor of Henan Province. Although he earned a reputation for improving the economic situation in the province, his term was overshadowed by disasters.

He was given the nickname "Three Fires Li" after hundreds of people died in three fires that occurred within a short space of each other at a factory, a cinema and a nightclub. Then he came under fire for trying to cover up a contaminated blood scandal in which large parts of the rural population were infected with HIV, although the practice had begun before he even came to power.

China's Communist Party Congress in 2007

China's Communist Party holds a congress every five years

After his six-year term, he said humbly: "The decisions I made in Henan were not always right and some might not be appropriate in the future, thus you should feel free to correct them." The speech earned him a standing ovation from his colleagues.

A hand for the economy

Another disaster overshadowed the first part of his term as party secretary in the northeastern province of Liaoning, when 200 miners died in an explosion. He was able to score points, however, by contributing to high economic growth.

In 2007, he was nominated to the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest organ of the Communist Party, where he continues to be responsible for a number of important issues, such as economic, structural and health reform, pricing policies, and the development of renewable energies.

Li Keqiang and Angela Merkel

Li Keqiang has been a frequent visitor to Europe

In recent years, the urbane politician has traveled to several partner countries, especially those in the eurozone. He also represented his country at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He also surprised his audience last year when he recited part of his speech in English at a celebration ceremony for the University of Hong Kong's centennial anniversary.

Li will probably succeed Wen Jiabao as prime minister in the coming year. Wen has been considered the face of reform in Chinese politics, as was his predecessor, Zhu Rongji. Should Li sees his role as PM to be similar, Wang Juntao's double-edged compliments could play in his favor.

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