In the hot seat

What were the takeaways from Li Keqiang’s 2017 policy address?


Li: mentioned Xi eight times

Former British prime minister Tony Blair is a politician known for his perspiration. Such was his sheen during one conference speech that his PR team tried to spin it as a sign of manliness. And asked a few years later about his relationship with Wendi Deng, former wife of Rupert Murdoch, Blair melted once more. “A large, dark pool of sweat has suddenly appeared under his armpit, spreading across an expensive blue shirt,” The Economist’s reporter noted.

The latest leader to moisten under the media glare is China’s Premier, Li Keqiang. Delivering the State Council’s government work report last Sunday to a 3,000-strong delegation of lawmakers, he perspired so profusely that beads of sweat were dripping onto his spectacles. Naturally, none of the Chinese media felt it was appropriate to comment, leaving it to onlookers from Hong Kong to wonder what had happened.

“Li Keqiang should not have stage fright, although the challenging [economic] situation in China and overseas has put him under pressure,” a commentator concluded in Hong Kong’s Ming Pao, adding that when Li was reiterating that the anti-graft crackdown would continue, delegates were seen taking selfies with their mobile phones.

“This [lack of respect] would indeed have cold sweat seeping down his back,” the same expert opined.

Political analysts have long thought that Li’s influence in leadership circles has waned and his tepid delivery on Sunday did little to quell speculation that he has been sidelined by Xi Jinping, the Chinese president and Party boss.

The content of his presentation didn’t seem to inspire delegates either. Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper noted that Li earned just a few rounds of applause and the loudest clapping came only after he had announced the scrapping of mobile phone roaming charges. (In 2014, he won more than 50 rounds of applause, a record. The state media declined to join in, describing the “clapping culture” as disruptive.)

The Apple Daily spent more of its time watching the Chinese president than his subordinate. “Xi Jinping put on a stone face throughout,” it noted. “He has not touched the report in front of him once.”

Of course, the president would have had a fair idea of what the premier was going to say, especially the repeated mentions of the primacy of the Party, and of Xi himself.

“Xi, who is also the Party’s leader, was name-checked eight times, more than any serving leader since Mao Zedong racked up 17 work-report mentions in 1975,” the Wall Street Journal calculated.

“This year’s report also contains 11 mentions of the word ‘core’, most of them in reference to Xi’s latest accolade: his designation last year as the core of the Party leadership.”

So apart from the political subtext, what were the policy highlights in Li’s latest blueprint?

This year’s growth target has been cut to around 6.5%, down from 6.5% to 7% for 2016. That means that the economy is likely to expand at its slowest percentage rate in 27 years, although Li is confident that it will create more than 11 million urban jobs, holding the unemployment rates in major cities below 4.5%.

Otherwise much of the message was the same as last year, with a focus on further cuts in coal and steel capacity, more supply side reforms and more work on reducing real estate overhang in cities where there has been over-building.

All of that will be hard work. But the real focus of power clearly rests on Xi as State President and Commander-in Chief of the PLA, as well as Chair of the Central Military Commission, Economic Reform Commission, National Security Council, Cyber Security Commission and Military Modernisation Commission. Add to that his chairing of the various ‘central leading groups’ that now shape policy across key areas of government, and it’s clear that Xi is the man in the spotlight, not his perspiring premier.

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