Who would have imagined street stalls could grab so much attention in China? Premier Li Keqiang’s comments about expanding street stalls to promote employment and the apparent pushback by Xi Jinping’s allies against his proposal have also revealed something that has become an afterthought in the Xi era: the power and importance of the country’s premier.
Li’s days as premier are limited – in fact, a little less than 1,000. When the National People’s Congress (NPC) amended China’s constitution in 2018 to remove term limits for the positions of president and vice president, it left the two-term limit for the premier unchanged. Li will have to either retire a bit early (he will be 67 at the 20th Party Congress in 2022, an age at which Politburo-level Chinese politicians usually receive a new five-year term) or move to a different position, for example chairman of the Standing Committee of the NPC or the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, similar to what Li Peng did in 1998. Because of the focus on what Xi will do in 2022, an important question has been ignored: Who will take Li Keqiang’s place?
Normally, it should have been clear who will be China’s next premier: the current first-ranked vice premier, who is also a member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). But when the PSC omitted any successor for Xi as party leader at the 2017 Party Congress, it also omitted a successor for Li. Han Zheng, the current first-ranked vice premier, will be 68 years old in 2022, which is exactly the traditional retirement age. As Han is not a close ally of Xi, it’s unlikely that he would be promoted after this age. This muddies the waters, but also increases Xi’s possibilities.
Some might be tempted to say that the identity of China’s next premier is irrelevant, because they will be nothing more than a figurehead. The premier might have limited influence when it comes to formulating the general policy framework, but plays an important role in implementing policies. The debate about street stalls should make it clear that the premier still wields important power and who holds the post matters. If Li was Xi’s loyal ally, this debate and the associated tensions, like other episodes before, would have never happened.
And, most importantly, the next premier will also probably be the second most powerful politician in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), so in case something unexpected happens to Xi, assuming he remains in charge for the next five or 10 years, this person will be best positioned to take control of the party. Whether they will be able to keep power will depend entirely on their political skills, network, and unforeseeable power plays, but it should be clear that whoever becomes China’s next premier will be catapulted in the limelight if something happens to the general secretary. This is why loyalty to Xi will probably be an important criterion for the next premier.
All Chinese premiers in the reform and opening-up era have previously served, even for a few months, as vice premiers. Indeed, there is even a precedent for a vice premier who wasn’t a PSC member to become premier: Wen Jiabao in 2002-2003. Familiarity with how the State Council operates is a logical prerequisite. If this precedent is to be followed, then there are only five possible candidates: Wang Yang, Han Zheng, Sun Chunlan, Hu Chunhua, and Liu He (Wang Qishan, vice premier between 2008 and 2013 and current vice president, will be 74 at the next party congress, so it’s highly unlikely he would be considered for any other position). If one adds to this the precedent of the 68 retirement age, then only two options remain: Wang Yang and Hu Chunhua. This seriously limits the range of options, so while it’s possible that one of these two might end up China’s next premier, it’s very likely that Xi and his allies are looking at a broader list of names.
This article has been published by Andrei Lungu, President of RISAP, in the The Diplomat. You can read the full article in The Diplomat.