20th Party Congress: Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping clash over Deng Xiaoping's legacy
by Li Qiang

The premier wants the country to maintain the policy of "reforms and openness" that underpinned China's economic miracle. With his 'common prosperity', Xi aims to centralise power. National economy in trouble, with a rapidly ageing population. Choice of new prime minister central to future direction.

Beijing (AsiaNews) - On the eve of the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Premier Li Keqiang is busy rescuing Deng Xiaoping's political legacy from Xi Jinping's aims of grandeur.

The 'little helmsman' Deng is the father of China's economic (and political) boom over the past 40 years. His policy of 'reforms and openings', still officially the Party guideline, aimed to increase national wealth; behind the social redistribution goals of 'common prosperity' promoted by Xi, many observers see instead an attempt at Maoist centralisation of power.

Confirming this analysis is Xi's probable recognition of a third (and even fourth) term in power during the CCP Congress, which opens on 16 October, an exception to the usual practice of a maximum of 10 years in power for the country's supreme leader.

During his visit to Shenzhen (Guangdong) on 16 and 17 August, Li seems to have wanted to send a coded message to Xi about which direction the country should take: 'China's reform and opening-up will continue to move on. The Yellow River and Yangtze River will not flow backward,'. It should be remembered that Guangdong was the starting point in 1992 for the 'southern tour' by which Deng promoted the liberalisation of the national economy and its opening to the world.

Li's well-directed comments come at a time of serious difficulties for the Chinese economy, which many blame on Xi's wrong choices, especially on the desire to 'zero in' on the Covid-19 contagion, at the cost of bringing the country to a standstill. Youth unemployment is now close to 20% of the workforce; incomes in the civil service have dropped to peaks of 30%; the latest data show exports in heavy decline. A boom in pension spending is expected while one third of the provinces have 20 per cent of the population over 60.

Sinologist Willy Lam points out in China Brief that Xi is not known for being a skilful policy-maker in the economic (and diplomatic) sphere. Where he excels is in his ability to 'broaden the influence' of his faction within the CCP.

After sidelining Li  for years as the premier in charge of economic policy, Xi has had to give space to his domestic opponent to try to get China's shaky economy back on track. With a difficult economic picture, in addition to the question of Xi's possible successor, the national leadership will have to make a key choice on the new premier.

First Vice Premier Han Zheng, close to Xi, is qualified for the post. However, due to his age (68), he should retire, according to Party rules. Li is pushing for his protégé Hu Chunhua, also a deputy premier, but it would be a big concession by Xi to the premier's faction, the Communist Youth. According to Nikkei Asia's Katsuji Nakazawa, business circles in China would like Wang Yang, chairman of the Chinese People's Consultative Political Conference, on the number four card in the current Party hierarchy, as prime minister.