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© 2017

Chinese premier faces uncertain fate ahead of political reshuffle

March 15, 2017

China's Premier Li Keqiang may be forced to step down as the country's economy slows and President Xi Jinping's power increases.

Beijing (dpa) - Chinese Premier Li Keqiang left his annual press conference on Wednesday with a hand wave, a grin and an unexpected farewell message.

"We'll see if we have the opportunity to meet again," Li told journalists gathered at Beijing's sumptuous Great Hall of the People for the close of the annual parliamentary session.

What might have been a slip of the tongue could prove to be revealing for the second most prominent politician in China. With the country's economy growing at the slowest pace in decades and with President Xi Jinping on a quest to consolidate power, Li faces an uncertain future, observers say.

Li, 61, is the head of the State Council, China's cabinet. He and Xi were both appointed by the National People's Congress (NPC), the country's parliament, in 2013.

But the hard, behind-the-scenes negotiations happened the previous autumn, during the Communist Party's National Congress, which takes place only once every five years to decide the country's top leadership.

At the next party congress this autumn, the premier might be sidelined, perhaps given a largely ceremonial position as head of the parliament, analysts say.

"Li Keqiang will definitely step down," Wu Qiang, a politics professor at Tsinghua University, told dpa. "He is a weak premier."

On the surface, Li's undoing appears to be China's slowing economy. At the press conference Wednesday, he told reporters a 6.5 per cent annual economic growth target - China's lowest in 25 years – would not be "easy to meet."

The country aims to maintain a solid growth rate while changing its economic model to rely more on services and domestic consumption.

Li was blamed for setbacks such as China's stock market meltdown last year. But in fact he has been gradually losing grip on China's economy to Xi, who has taken over various policy-making groups and appointed his friends to key economic positions, analysts say.

"Li is an economist, a technocrat, but he has not had opportunities to demonstrate his competence and ability," said Zhao Suisheng, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Denver. "So he of course wants to stay."

Xi might just have enough capital to remove him. Li's appointment as premier was from the beginning a compromise between different political factions, Zhao said.

The premier is the protege of former president Hu Jintao, who had risen through the political ranks from the Communist Youth League of China, the party's youth division.

But as Xi is consolidating power and building a personality cult reminiscent of Mao Zedong, he needs "a loyal 'CEO' - not another bureaucrat from a different power group," Wu said.

The whole concept of a youth league has become irrelevant to Xi, who is looking for loyal, specialized officials.

A potential replacement for Li could be Wang Qishan, another member of the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, the party's top decision-making body, which also includes Xi and Li.

Wang, who currently leads China's powerful anti-corruption agency, is 68 years old and should retire this year, according to convention.

However, it appears that he could stay on, as Xi is doing away with unofficial retirement rules imposed by his predecessors to prevent political leaders from attaining too much personal authority and power.

"This 'retire at 68 rule,' which used to be observed, has become meaningless," said Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "Xi is the emperor; he makes and breaks rules."

Xi himself is rumoured to want to stay in power indefinitely. Last fall, he was named the "core" of the Communist Party's Central Committee, a prestigious title that might allow him to remain president beyond the regular two terms.

Even if he steps down from his role as president, he might stay in charge of the Central Military Commission and rule the country indirectly, analysts say.

"There is a long tradition in modern China of top leaders remaining powerful even after they leave public office," said Dennis Wilder, a Georgetown University professor and former CIA official.

"For many years, Deng Xiaoping was China's paramount leader even though his only official position was head of the China Bridge Society."

A wild card against Xi's plans could be China's society, which is increasingly disconnecting from political propaganda and could be affected by the economic slowdown, analysts say.

"The power politics is confined to the elite, and they will work together to maintain their power," said Zhao from the University of Denver. "But the power struggle now becomes so tense."

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