But friends and former associates also said that Li was always reticent when speaking, rarely revealing much about his personal views — leaving them to only guess that he shares the reform agenda. “He’s the kind of person whose mind you can’t really read,” said Dai Qing, a democracy activist who was jailed for nearly a year after the 1989 student protests.
China’s outgoing premier, Wen Jiabao, also was seen by many here as a reformer who in recent years began publicly advocating for more accountability and less corruption in China’s Communist-run government. But without allies, Wen became an increasingly isolated voice for reform, unable — or unwilling — to push through his agenda. Some of Li’s friends and associates now wonder if he will suffer the same fate.
Li is described as an extremely intelligent self-taught speaker of English and a loyal Communist Party member who gave up a rare opportunity to study abroad when the party asked him to stay in China to work organizing students at Peking University as a top official in the Communist Youth League. It was at the university that Li made friendships with many outspoken pro-democracy advocates, some of whom were jailed or went into exile after the 1989 military crackdown at Tiananmen Square.
But some said he is not ruthless enough for the party’s internal maneuverings — a fact that some colleagues said may have relegated him to the No. 2 job, and not the presidency, which will go to the current vice president Xi Jinping.
From student to party leader
Unlike Xi, a so-called princeling whose father, Xi Zhongxun, was a Mao-era military hero and later a governor and vice premier, Li comes to the top of China’s power structure without a revolutionary pedigree.
Li’s father was a mid-level county official — “a small potato,” said one classmate — in Anhui province, one of China’s poorest areas. And unlike Xi and the other princelings, whose upward path was eased by family connections, Li was admitted to Peking University on the basis of his scores on the national entrance exam, or “gaokao,” when it was first reinstated in 1977 after being suspended during the Cultural Revolution.
Li entered Peking University, China’s most prestigious, in February 1978. Yang Baikui, who was an international politics student there, worked with Li for one year while at the school, translating an English book, “The Due Process of Law,” by British jurist Lord Denning. The book was brought to China by a professor, Gong Xiangrui, then one of China’s few British-trained lawyers, who inculcated his students in the ideas of Western-style liberalism and constitutional law.