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China's Xi assigns premier job to close aide

March 11, 2023

China's new premier will have the important task of reviving the country's economy from the COVID lull, all while navigating worsening relations with the west.

Li Qiang votes during the third plenary session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 10, 2023
Li Qiang — the former Communist Party chief of Shanghai — will replace Li Keqiang who is retiring after two five-year termsImage: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping, on Saturday, appointed his close aide Li Qiang as China's new premier with the parliament's approval, hours after the head honcho secured his third five-year term at the helm the world's second largest economy.

The announcement came during the ongoing annual meeting of China's rubber-stamp parliament.

This is first of the several upcoming announcements as Xi installs a slate of loyalists in key positions, marking the biggest government reshuffle in a decade.

Li — the former Communist Party chief of Shanghai — will replace Li Keqiang who is retiring during the National People's Congress session after two full terms of service.

Xi nominated Li and then delegates voted. In all, 2,936 votes were case in favor, with just three against and eight abstentions, according to totals projected on a screen inside the Great Hall of the People. 

China's Xi handed third term as president

Who is Li Qiang?

The incoming premier is a close ally of Xi, serving as his chief of staff for three years when the latter was the provincial party secretary of eastern China's Zhejiang province. While he has been expected to come into this role, Li's ascension seemed in doubt a few months ago after his handling of the Shanghai lockdown which left residents without adequate access to food and medicines.

The 63-year-old is widely considered business friendly and pragmatic. He will face the important task of reviving China's economy after three years of strict COVID-19 curbs. China's economy grew just 3% in 2022, and expects to grow around 5% in 2023 — its lowest goal in nearly three decades.

According to Christopher Beddor, deputy China research director at Gavekal Dragonomics, Li's main challenge will be beating this target without triggering serious inflation or piling on more debt.

Li is also coming into power at a time when geopolitical relations with the west are worsening over Taiwan, spy balloons and China's alleged support of Russia in its invasion in Ukraine.

The new premier's debut will be watched closely on Monday during the traditional question-and-answer session with the media once the parlimentary session ends.

The role of premier is the highest administrative position in China's government with responsibilities including organizing and administering the Chinese civil bureaucracy. 

Xi, meanwhile, is both China's president — the formal head of state but not the true seat of power in China — and simultaneously the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Since 1993, the same person has held both roles. Xi on Friday became the first person to start an unprecedented third term in them.

mk/msh (AFP, Reuters)