After finishing Peking University, Li began working in the Communist Youth League while Yang became active in the pro-democracy movement that swept through China in the 1980s. The movement was crushed when Deng Xiaoping ordered troops to disperse students from Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters. Yang was jailed for 11 months and then expelled from the Communist Party.
Yang said he has not spoken with Li since they met at the Communist Youth League office a few days before the 1989 crackdown. But he said Li always “asks about my situation” and has other mutual friends from their school days convey his greetings.
“Some of his friends can still be regarded as liberal. Li Keqiang will still discuss politics with them,” Yang said. “The main difference between him and the 1980s dissidents is how fast or how slow China’s democratization should be. And how many steps it should take before China is democratized.”
‘How far Li can go’
Li Datong, who was fired as an editor of a China Youth Daily supplement for pushing the boundaries of official censorship, met Li Keqiang in the ’90s and considers him a reformer — even though, like others, he said the incoming premier’s hands may be tied by the system.
“Li Keqiang is a product of the early 1980s, which was the era of enlightenment in China,” Li Datong said. “I always have high expectations for Li Keqiang, but his power is also very limited.”
Several other of Li’s former colleagues and classmates agreed with that assessment.
“If we can expect any democracy, it will be democracy within the system, and Li will help Xi in doing this,” said Yan Huai, a former official with the Communists’ now-disbanded Young Cadres Bureau, who joined the 1989 protests and then left for the United States. “How far Xi walks will determine how far Li can go. He won’t walk in front of Xi. And neither will he lag behind him.”
He Qinhua, another law school classmate, said Li was likely to understand better than other Communist stalwarts the growing public demands for more accountability.
“Li is not a conservative guy,” He said. But he added, “On political reform, the premier is not the one that can make the final decision. It’s the party general secretary.” Li, he added, “can do more in economic reform.”
Li’s doctoral thesis is in economics, and he has written more recent articles focused on China’s industrialization and how the shift to urbanization would improve agricultural conditions, leaving fewer farmers who were more productive. He has also written about the importance of building a stronger social welfare system.
Li is also a realist. According to confidential U.S. diplomatic cables published by the group WikiLeaks, in 2007 he told then-U.S. Ambassador Clark T. Randt Jr. that economic figures coming out of China were mostly “unreliable.”
Li’s rise has not been without controversy. In Henan, where Li became governor in 1998, he has been criticized for not taking steps to prevent the spread of the AIDS epidemic to hundreds of thousands of villagers who were contaminated after donating blood through a government program.
Most of the infections happened before Li was governor. But one critic, Chen Bingzhong, a 79-year-old former head of China’s National Institute of Health Education, wrote an open letter that appeared on overseas Chinese Web sites in September calling Li “unsuitable to be the leader of a country.”
Tao Jingzhou, another Anhui native and law school friend of Li’s who now works for an American law firm in Beijing, recalls sending a half-joking note to Li after his appointment as Henan governor. “Now you can take care of Middle China,” he wrote. “I hope one day you will take control of the Imperial state.”
Now with his friend being elevated to premier, Tao said, “A lot of people have great expectations that things will change.”
Wang Juan and Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.