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Married to an English literature professor, Li and his family have largely steered clear of the webs of corruption surrounding other leading Chinese officials, although questions have been raised over whether his brother’s powerful position at the government tobacco monopoly clashes with Li’s role in making health policy.

Since his 2007 appointment to the Standing Committee, Li has overseen modest progress in his areas of responsibility, including public health, food safety and housing, which have long been plagued by funding difficulties, lax supervision and soaring prices.

He’s maintained a steady, if low-key, schedule of meetings and speeches, with a visit last year to the Chinese autonomous region of Hong Kong attracting the greatest attention — though not necessarily for the right reasons. The stifling security surrounding him and his unwillingness to meet with political critics seemed to cast him as a typical Chinese leader, tone deaf to public opinion in the former British colony that has maintained its own legal system and political freedoms.

In an April speech to the Boao Forum, a gathering of government officials and business leaders in southern China, Li made the case for structural reform of China’s economy, citing the need for greater balance, coordination and stability. China wants to create an “open, transparent, fair, competitive, and predictable marketplace and legal environment,” he said.

Yet similar pledges have been made many times before, including in China’s latest Five Year Plan, and questions remain about Li’s willingness to take on vested interests, particularly in the state-owned enterprises, said Patrick Chovanec, a business professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.

“It remains to be seen whether Li will come out as a leader, or just follow a weak, watered-down consensus,” Chavonec said.

That demand for consensus severely constrains the scope of any administrative reform, even though Li and the party say they are necessary, said U.S. Naval Academy China scholar Yu Maochun.

“You can’t change the key parts of China’s economic structure without fundamentally changing China’s political structure, so I don’t expect much” from Li, Yu said.