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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Step Down Amid Xi’s Struggle for a Third Term This Fall

Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: March 11, 2022
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Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang enter the Great Hall of the People at the beginning of the Second Plenary Session of the Fifth Session of the 13th National People's Congress on March 08, 2022, in Beijing, China. (Image: Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images)

Li Keqiang, premier of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), will be leaving office after completing his legal maximum of two terms early next year, as reported by various outlets. 

The premier, who also serves as a standing committee member in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Politburo, is regarded as being the second-most powerful leadership role in China. 

Li has been premier since 2013, having been selected the previous fall at the CCP’s 18th National Congress along with Xi Jinping, who is PRC president and CCP general secretary.

“This is the last year I will be premier,” Li told reporters on March 11 in Beijing. 

Normally held every five years, the 20th National Congress expected this autumn is notable due to the fact that Xi intends to take a third term as president. 

In 2018, the CCP abolished term limits for the Chinese presidency, indicating that Xi would take on a third five-year-term. 

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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang speaks during a news conference following the closing of the second session of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People on March 20, 2018 in Beijing, China. (Image: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

However, Li’s scheduled departure from office shows that “even though Xi is set on getting a third term, he can’t go too off-script regarding other personnel arrangements” at the 20th Party Congress, Don Tse, lead researcher at political risk consultancy SinoInsider, told Vision Times.

“We’ve said that Xi Jinping controls key positions in the Party, government, and military. But he still lacks sufficient authority, and there are many anti-Xi elements below. So the opposition to him is great.” 

Tse added that Li’s political patron, former Chinese leader Hu Jintao, played a considerable role in helping Xi Jinping fend off attacks from the faction of Jiang Zemin, Hu’s own predecessor and a powerful force behind the scenes in the CCP regime.

However, with Xi’s consolidation of power, Li has been increasingly marginalized. “Because Premier Li did not have the political influence necessary to support whatever ambitions he may have had, he would not seek to contest Xi’s growing authority. This way he avoids putting himself at risk,” Tse said.

For Xi’s part, Li’s stepping down next March means that Xi can appoint another premier even more loyal to him, Tse said. However, under the “guidance” of “Xi Jinping’s economic thought,” China’s economic policies will cause further concern at home and abroad: the Xi administration would be even less well-equipped to handle the variety of economic challenges and crises currently facing China’s leaders.

Xi and Li, together with Chinese vice president Wang Qishan, form a political triangle that has lasted for the nine years since Xi entered office in 2012. 

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The fight for a third term

Xi’s predecessors, including Hu and Jiang, were constitutionally limited to two terms in the state presidency. 

Further, informal regulations in the Communist Party tether the position of CCP General Secretary — the de facto most powerful title in Chinese politics — to the leader’s age. 

Since Xi is already 68, he is supposed to step down this year as Party head; however, Xi’s lack of a designated successor and propaganda praising him as an indispensable leader for China make clear that he will try to stay on until 2027 or even further. 

According to Tse, opposition to Xi’s efforts for another five years as Chinese leader are so fierce that his rivals may prevent him from getting his third term. 

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In particular, Xi’s staying on could be jeopardized “if there is unexpected significant turbulence at home or abroad,” the China expert said.  

“Right now the COVID-19 situation is very severe in both Hong Kong and the mainland. This is putting pressure on Xi’s Zero-COVID policies at a time when countries around the world are lifting pandemic mandates, which also creates pressure for China’s business environment.” 

While Xi opened with a massive anti-corruption campaign that has felled hundreds of high-ranking Party officials, and vowed to strengthen economic and political reforms, the CCP has become significantly more repressive in recent years. 

Additionally, according to SinoInsider, Xi’s actions have failed to rid the regime of his powerful factional rivals. The struggle has resulted in deadlock at nearly every step of the political process — contrary to perceptions that Xi is China’s most powerful leader since Mao. 

Tse added that chances of Xi installing himself as “CCP Chairman,” as some China-watchers have predicted, are virtually nil. 

The powerful post of “chairman” is most closely associated with Communist China’s founding dictator Mao Zedong. It was abolished in the 1980s as the CCP moved towards “collective leadership.”