BEIJING, March 11 (Reuters): Four years before Li Qiang gained notoriety as the force behind the two-month Covid-19 lockdown of Shanghai, the man who became China's premier on Saturday worked quietly behind the scenes to drive a bold revamp of the megacity's sclerotic stock market.
Li's back-channelling - sources said he bypassed the China Securities Regulatory Commission, which lost some of its power under the new set-up - demonstrated what became a reputation for pragmatism as well as close ties with President Xi Jinping.
In late 2018, Xi himself announced Shanghai's new tech-focused STAR Market as well as the pilot of a registration-based IPO system, reforms meant to entice China's hottest young firms to list locally rather than overseas.
"The CSRC was very unhappy," said a veteran banker close to regulators and Shanghai officials, declining to be named given the sensitivity of the matter.
"Li's relationship with Xi played a role here," enabling him to present the scheme directly to the central government, without going through the CSRC, the person added.
The CSRC did not respond to a request for comment.
Previously the Communist Party chief in Shanghai, Li was confirmed as premier during the National People's Congress, charged with managing the world's second largest economy.
He replaced the retiring Li Keqiang, widely perceived to have been sidelined as Xi tightened his grip on management of the economy.
Leadership watchers say Li Qiang's closeness to Xi is both a strength and a vulnerability: while he has Xi's trust, he is beholden to his long-time patron.
Trey McArver, co-founder of consultancy Trivium China, said Li is likely to be much more powerful than his predecessor.
Xi expended significant political capital to get him into the role, given Li's lack of central government experience and the Shanghai lockdown, McArver said.
"Officials know that Li Qiang is Xi Jinping's guy," he said.
"He clearly thinks that Li Qiang is a very competent person and he has put him in this position because he trusts him and he expects a lot of him."
Li, 63, did not respond to questions sent to China's State Council Information Office.
A career bureaucrat, Li was revealed as the pick for China's number two role in October when Xi unveiled a leadership line-up stacked with loyalists.
At that time, Li had been known for overseeing the harrowing Covid lockdown earlier last year of Shanghai's 25 million people, which shut the city's economy and left psychological scars among its residents. That made him a target of anger but did nothing to derail his promotion.
Li was also instrumental in pushing for China's unexpectedly sudden end to its zero-Covid policy late last year, Reuters reported this month.
People who have interacted with Li say they found him practical-minded, an effective bureaucratic operator and supportive of the private sector - a stance that would be expected in someone whose career put him in charge of some of China's most economically dynamic regions.
As Communist Party chief between 2002 to 2004 in his home city of Wenzhou, a hotbed of entrepreneurialism, Li came across as open-minded and willing to listen, said Zhou Dewen, who represented small and midsize enterprises in the city.
"He took a liberal approach of granting private companies default access to enter the market, except when explicitly banned by law, rather then the traditional approach of keeping private companies out by default," said Zhou.
Craig Allen, president of the U.S.-China Business Council and a former U.S. official, said Li sought to level the playing field for foreign businesses, pointing to the speed with which U.S. carmaker Tesla was able to get its Shanghai factory there operational in 2019.
"Clearly nothing got in the way once a decision was made. There was a clarity of a kind in his decision making, an authority, and that really helps," said Allen, describing Li as comfortable in his own skin.
Still, several observers caution against putting too much weight on Li's experience in a business hub such as Shanghai, since Xi has steadily tightened Communist Party control and taken the economy in a more statist direction.
"Now Li is a national leader, working under a market-sceptic boss, and he has to balance growth with a range of social, technological, and geopolitical goals," said Neil Thomas, senior analyst at Eurasia.
Even by the opaque standards of Chinese politics, there is little public information about Li's background or personal life.
Born in Ruian county in what is now Wenzhou, the 17-year-old Li went to work in 1976 at an irrigation station in his hometown, a desirable job in what turned out to be the final year of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.
Li entered Zhejiang Agricultural University in 1978, the year that campuses were reopened in China and competition for places was fierce. He received master's degrees from the central party school in Beijing and Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
It was in Zhejiang, home to some of China's biggest private companies - where Xi was provincial party secretary and Li was his chief of staff between 2004 and 2007 - that the two men would have built their personal bond.
American author Robert Lawrence Kuhn, who met Li and Xi together in 2005 and 2006, said the two shared an easy rapport.
"Unlike most other staffers of top leaders, Li was no wallflower," Kuhn told Reuters.
"In the presence of Xi, he felt comfortable and confident enough to put himself forward to engage me, which tells me he is not worried his boss might think he is trying to steal his limelight," Kuhn said.
However, leadership watchers said there are limits to what Li will be able to do.
"Li can make some repairs here and there, but he won't tear down the wall and build something new," said Chen Daoyin, former associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, and now a commentator based in Chile. - Reuters