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Ayushman Jamwal
Monday , May 20, 2013 at 12 : 40

Li Keqiang: ascent of a regional partner?


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China's newly elected Premier Li Keqiang is in an instrumental position to boost China's relationship with India and shape the destiny of South Asia. At this stage, Sino-Indian diplomacy is prudently geared to place border disputes on the back burner to reap the advantages of bilateral trade. "India and China must shake hands to make Asia an engine of the world economy," Li said speaking to an Indian delegation on Wednesday in Beijing. He has arrived in India seeking cooperation and commitment towards that very vision. Stronger ties with India are in China's national interest. It's a policy move directed purely by prudence and not principle, a lesson China learnt the hard way.

Mao Zedong may have been the founder of the nation of China, but he is not the architect of the modern day China that many have come to know, respect and even fear. While Mao's despotic brand of Communism won the revolution against the pro-western nationalists, it turned on itself once there were none to rebel against. His vision of a Communist China, culminating in the years of the Cultural Revolution, spawned a generation of political gangsterism, wanton violence and financial ruin for the people as he tried to purge the nation of capitalism and the class system. Thousands lost their lives over allegations of being upper class, western or even perceived of being anti-communist. The current members of China's Politburo Standing Committee all grew up in that era and witnessed first-hand how their fabled Communist doctrine and national hero tore their nation apart; how blind idealism got in the way of national progress. After Mao's death in 1976, the fever and fear of Communist idealism broke. The nation's leaders inducted capitalism into the national economy and China gradually started clawing its way back to its feet. Prudent economic action and consolidated governance has made the nation a global economic power to reckon with.

Li Keqiang went through a similar kind of transformation through his career. Li's father was a mid-ranking Communist cadre in the Anhui province of China. While his father wanted to groom him for the Communist Party, Li wanted to pursue studies at the university. However, in 1966, under the influence of the Cultural Revolution, university entrance examinations were suspended. Mao passed a decree, forcing the youth to move to the countryside to start farms, because according to him, city life made people lazy and inefficient while true education resided in the countryside. At a young age, Li did hard labour in the poor county of Fengyang as one of the many youths who were sent there to farm. A year after Mao's death, universities were re-opened, and Li secured a place at Peking University to study law and also earned a doctorate in economics. Li was active in student politics and was elected to the head of Peking University's student federation, a position he held between 1978 and 1982. He befriended many student idealists in his university days, many who later fled the country or were placed under arrest for opposing Communist rule in China. Yang Baikui, a former friend and Chinese scholar told the Guardian in March that Li was a closet revolutionary in his university days. Baikui said they discussed ideas of democracy and liberalisation, but Li's behaviour was very prudent, something that benefitted him as he worked his way up the ladder of the Chinese Communist Party.

In 1998, Li became the nation's youngest governor at the age of 43 when he was handed the administration of the central Henan province. However, the early days of his tenure were marked by controversy. After he took over as governor, the province was rocked by three deadly fires which claimed hundreds of lives and caused extensive damage to property. The government was accused of responding slowly to the incidents and not taking effective steps to mitigate fire risks. The fires granted Li the infamous nickname, 'Three fires Li'. Nonetheless, Li was later promoted to party secretary of the Henan province. However, controversy was not far away. As party secretary, he faced scathing allegations of trying to cover up an AIDS epidemic in the province that killed thousands. The epidemic was started by a blood selling scheme set up by the previous administration of the province. Residents of the rural areas were encouraged to sell blood to merchants who used unhygienic means to extract the plasma and injected the donors with the remaining blood. Li's government was accused of attempting to suppress the epidemic by trying to prevent victims from seeking help from outside, and thwarting doctors and NGOs from informing and assisting people. Doctors continued to face government crackdowns till the central leadership finally intervened in 2003. Beijing was accused of protecting Li as he had already been chosen for a top position in the Politburo Standing Committee. Yet, Li never apologised or resigned for the controversies that shadowed his government. Instead, he focused on delivering economic development to the poor inland province and successfully transformed it into an attractive area for investment.

Henan's economy was suffering from the production of poor quality agro products. Li diverted public funds to modernise farming, focusing on the growth of high quality wheat. Over the years, the province saw a boost in employment and skill training as a major food and meat processing industry emerged producing hundreds of lucrative food brand enterprises. Between 1997 and 2002, Henan's GDP climbed from 407.9 billion yuan to 616.3 billion, an annual growth rate of 8.9 per cent, 1.3 per cent higher than the national average over the same period.

In December 2004, Li was transferred to the Liaoning province as party chief. The province's economy is based on heavy industry, but it was in a poor condition as state-owned enterprises were incurring heavy losses coupled with high levels of unemployment. Li injected some capitalism into the economy. He introduced a mixed ownership model to reform state owned enterprises (SOEs) allowing private owners to enter the market. He removed the equity ratios for SOEs in all areas of industry and allowed the markets to direct the level of partnership. At the end of 2007, 29 of the province's 40 major industrial SOEs had completed joint-stock reforms.

In October 2007, Li was promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee. At the 2008 National People's Congress, he was elected Vice-Premier of the Communist Party. In March 2013, the 12th National People's Congress was convened which elected Li as the new Chinese Premier with over 2,900 of the 3,000 legislators voting in his favour. At the conclusion of the Congress on March 17, Li gave his first major speech calling for efficient government spending, fairer distribution of wealth and continued economic reform to move focus from export-led growth to consumption-based growth.

China's free market reforms require a strong regional partner and market, and Li aims to make India a crucial player in his endeavour. While he may understand the importance of better relations, it also seems he has a soft corner for India, raising hopes for a relationship beyond economics. Today isn't the first time he has visited the country. He came to India 27 years ago as part of a youth delegation from Peking University and recalls the kindness and goodwill he experienced. "Visiting Taj Mahal and prestigious Indian universities, research institutes and the warmth and hospitality of Indian people, left a lasting impact on me," he told the delegation on Wednesday. "I have made the decision to visit India first not just because India is an important neighbour and one of the populous countries of the world but also because of the seeds of friendship sown during my own youth," he said. Sino-Indian ties have been a relationship Indians haven't been able to experience on a cultural level, through multi lateral exchanges and engagements. Students, teachers and artists from both countries have been unable to tap into a cultural exposure denied for so many years. I hope Li's words are genuine and he sincerely aims to build Indo-China ties beyond just trade. India is sure to grasp a hand put forward.


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Ayushman Jamwal works on the foreign desk at CNN-IBN.

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