BEIJING — The man in line to oversee China’s massive but rapidly slowing economy for the coming decade speaks English and comes from a generation of politicians schooled during a time of greater openness to liberal Western ideas than their predecessors.
But Li Keqiang also has been a cautious career bureaucrat who rose through, and is bound by, a consensus-oriented Communist Party that has been slow to reform its massive, state-owned enterprises while reflexively stifling dissent — and he has played the role of enforcer to keep a lid on bad news.
Mr. Li is to be promoted within the leadership’s top council after a pivotal party congress closes later this week and is expected to take the economy-focused post of premier from Wen Jiabao next spring.
Mr. Li was governor of the agricultural province of Henan in 1998 during an unusual explosion of AIDS cases. Tens of thousands of people had contracted HIV from illegal blood-buying rings that pooled plasma and re-injected it into donors after removing the blood products.
But Beijing had not acknowledged the problem yet, and Mr. Li oversaw a campaign to squelch reporting about it, harass activists and isolate affected villages.
When the government finally did go public four years later, Mr. Li showed canny political instincts with a rapid course reversal, channeling government assistance to victims and making public shows of compassion.
“He just tried to escape from this crisis” at first, said Wan Yanhai, a prominent Chinese AIDS activist who fled to the U.S. with his family in 2010 following increasing police harassment. “He’s probably not a bad guy, but he’s not shown himself to be very capable of managing crises in a strong and responsible way.”
Mr. Li’s formative years are typical of the fifth generation of communist leaders. He was introduced to politics during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, then entered the prestigious Peking University.
After graduation, Mr. Li went to work at the Communist Youth League, an organization that grooms university students for party roles, when it was headed by now-President Hu Jintao.
After Beijing erupted in the 1989 pro-democracy protests centered on Tiananmen Square, Mr. Li originally tried to build bridges between the league and student activists.
After martial law was declared, however, he quickly abandoned such efforts and within four years rose to head of the league at a time when it was becoming irrelevant to young people amid increasing choices and a growing market economy.
Mr. Li had been seen as Mr. Hu’s preferred successor, but the need to balance party factions prompted the leadership to choose a consensus candidate, Xi Jinping, who is expected to take over as party chief after a pivotal party congress ends Wednesday and later as president.
Mr. Li’s relationship with Mr. Xi remains ambiguous, although the two are expected to follow the existing model under which Mr. Hu stayed somewhat aloof as head of state while Mr. Wen acted as the public face of the administration.
Both are seen as part of a generation of leaders more comfortable with the West than their predecessors, said Ding Xueliang of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
“Their reference for great power status from day one was the United States, unlike Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, who looked toward the Soviet Union,” Mr. Ding said.
After Henan, Mr. Li’s next posting was in the province of Liaoning, where he oversaw a revival that drew foreign investment from BMW and Intel.
One of the province’s largest cities, the port of Dalian, even attracted the glitzy World Economic Forum, where global tycoons mixed with top Chinese leaders and captains of industry.