China's close confidant of top leader Xi Jinping, Li Qiang, has been named as the country's next premier. The appointment was made at Saturday's session of the National People's Congress, China's ceremonial parliament, a day after Xi secured his third five-year term as state leader. Li, who is best known for having enforced a brutal "zero-COVID" lockdown on Shanghai last spring as party boss of the Chinese financial hub, will be in charge of the world's second-largest economy, which is facing some of its worst prospects in years. Li takes on the job as authority of the premier and the State Council, China's Cabinet, has been steadily eroding as Xi shifts more powers to bodies directly under the ruling Communist Party.
Li came to know Xi during the future president's term as head of Li's native Zhejiang, a relatively wealthy southeastern province now known as a technology and manufacturing powerhouse. Prior to the pandemic, Li built up a reputation in Shanghai and Zhejiang before that as friendly to private industry, even as Xi enforced tighter political controls and anti-COVID curbs, as well as more control over e-commerce and other tech companies.
As premier, Li will be charged with reviving a sluggish economy still emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic and confronted with weak global demand for exports, lingering U.S. tariff hikes, a shrinking workforce and an aging population. At the opening of the annual congress session on Sunday, outgoing Premier Li Keqiang announced plans for a consumer-led revival of the struggling economy, setting this year's growth target at "around 5%." Last year's growth fell to 3%, the second-weakest level since at least the 1970s.
Li's appointment comes as Xi's near-total monopoly on Chinese political power eliminates any potential opposition to his hyper-nationalistic agenda of building China into the top political, military and economic rival to the U.S. and the chief authoritarian challenge to the Washington-led democratic world order.
However, unlike Xi, who received the body's full endorsement, Li's tally included three opposed and eight abstentions. The nearly 3,000 delegates deposited ballots into boxes placed around the vast auditorium in the Great Hall of the People, in a process that also produced new heads of the Supreme People's Court and the state prosecutor's office, and two vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission that commands the party's military wing, the 2 million-member People's Liberation Army.
It is worth noting that the appointment of officials by the Communist Party and its influence on China's government and economy may not be as transparent and democratic as in other countries. The process of selecting leaders is mostly secretive, with limited public participation or scrutiny. The party leadership is known to place significant emphasis on maintaining stability and control, which can lead to crackdowns on dissent and censorship.
Overall, Li Qiang's appointment as premier highlights Xi Jinping's continued consolidation of power in China's government and economy, with potential implications for China's relations with the U.S. and the rest of the world.