18 August 2019
Many questions went unasked at Premier Li Keqiang's post-NPC press conference in Beijing on Thursday. Photo: Reuters
Many questions went unasked at Premier Li Keqiang's post-NPC press conference in Beijing on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

WEEKENDER: Opportunity lost as Li mislays his nerve

Premier Li Keqiang’s {李克強} lackluster press conference at the end of the National People’s Congress plenum Thursday was an apt closure of the annual session.

Billed as one of the defining events on the nation’s political calendar, the nine-day gathering was held under the dark shadows of the brutal terrorist attack in Kunming two weeks ago and the disappearance of a Beijing-bound Malaysia Airlines flight last Saturday. Most of the 239 people on board were Chinese.

The congress also convened amid wild speculation that details of the corruption case of former Communist Party politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang {周永康} might be unveiled at the end of the plenum. In that light, the absence of any question on the case at Thursday’s press conference came as a slight surprise. (Rumor was that journalists were told by officials not to raise the question.)

In a marked departure from previous post-NPC press conferences held by his predecessors including Zhu Rongji {朱鎔基} and Wen Jiabao {温家寶}, Li’s turn in front of the media was intriguing not because for he said, but because the questions that weren’t asked.

The “big tiger” Zhou case aside, a long list of hypersensitive questions was also missing at the two-hour-long press conference at the Great Hall of the People. The issues include the terrorist attack at the Kunming railway station and the related question of separatist movements in Xinjiang and Tibet; territorial disputes in the East China and South China seas and the heightened tension in Sino-Japanese relations.

Taken together, it is obvious the premier is seeking to steer clear of political controversies at a time when the party leadership confronts an increasingly complex domestic and external environment. His remarks also shed some light on the role and status of Li in the ruling party under the helm of Xi Jinping{習近平}.

Already head of the party, the state and the military, Xi has taken the reins of three top-level committees on national security, reform and internet security. He has also spearheaded the party’s key political and ideological tasks, including the battle against corruption and the promotion of the notion of “China dream.”

It’s true that Li has waded into questions ranging from corruption to China-US ties, reform and smog. A closer look into details of his press conference shows clearly that he has carefully trodden the political path laid down under the Xi leadership. He stuck to a prudent approach and the subject he is most familiar with and primarily responsible for, i.e. the economy.

To all appearances, Li has offered no hints of a change of economic and monetary policies despite the growing fears of a further slowing of the economy. The release of three sets of economic data relating to fixed asset investment, consumption and industrial value-added output, which came in below market expectations, worsened jitters over the growing downward pressure on the economy.

In his remarks on Thursday, Li made no bones about the tougher challenges on the economic front, putting on a confident, brave face about achieving the economic growth target.

Li said: “We managed to achieve the economic growth target last year without resorting to short-term stimulus policies. Why can’t we make it again this year?”

He noted that the GDP target had been set at “about” 7.5 per cent – meaning there was “a level of flexibility here.”

Li was giving a clear message that GDP growth might be allowed to slip below the annual target, as Beijing strives to transform the old growth model focused on speed into a healthier and more sustainable pattern through market reform and the creation of a rules-based economy.

Unlike Zhu and Wen, the economics-trained premier made no attempt to impress his audience with emotion-laden poems and high-sounding pledges. Instead, Li adhered to his no-frills style as he reiterated the importance of reform in the nation’s next stage of economic transformation.

He went into length to underline the importance of giving market forces a bigger role in allocation of resources while limiting further the role of government in economy. “A market economy”, he said, is primarily a “rule-of-law economy.”

“We should strive to build a market system that allows anything not prohibited in law and a government that only does what it is given the power to do so in law. [We should] lift restrictions to let people take the initiative and inject new vigor into the economy.”

Li’s repeated pledges on market and reform, however, failed to shine as his propaganda team strove to make sure his press conference stayed clear of politically sensitive questions.

The party leadership may be serious when they said they are ready to bite the bullet in their next stage of reform. But they lost the opportunity at the post-NPC press conference to show they were confident of taking tough questions on a host of difficult domestic and world issues.

Chris Yeung is deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. This column appears every Friday.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]



He was editor-at-large at the South China Morning Post and, more recently, deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

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