More China trips, less diplomacy: What does Li Qiang’s schedule reveal about the changing role of premier?

China’s political elite and lawmakers will gather next week for the country’s annual legislative sessions which will set budgets and lay down Beijing’s plans for the country’s economy, diplomacy, trade and military. In the first part of the series, Vanessa Cai looks at the role of premier and how it has changed under Li Qiang.

When Li Qiang was named China’s premier in March last year, the world’s second-biggest economy was just reopening its borders after three years of draconian Covid-19 lockdowns.

Bespectacled and diminutive, Li, the former Communist Party chief of Shanghai, sought to put the city’s chaotic Covid lockdowns of 2022 behind him as he took on the new role of top enforcer of President Xi Jinping’s economic vision.

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Li, 64, spent his first year as premier amid repeated stern warnings from Beijing about the unprecedentedly complex environment of the time. In May, Xi urged officials to prepare for the “worst and most extreme situations” so they could deal with “high winds and waves and even dangerous storms”.

Compared with his predecessor, Li Keqiang, Premier Li Qiang has put more focus on domestic issues during his first year in office, scaling back on foreign affairs, according to a tally by the South China Morning Post.

The Post compared their itineraries for domestic meetings, time spent on inspection trips inside China and overseas trips and the number of diplomatic events held.

Official information from mid-March last year, when Li Qiang was sworn in as the premier, until Monday, shows that on domestic affairs he has spent more time on inspection tours across the country to gather first-hand information on the ground and held more meetings with local officials compared with the first year of both terms of his predecessor.

But Li Qiang has made significantly fewer appearances at international meetings and spent less time abroad during the same period of the premiership.

Analysts say the pattern reflects a narrowing in the role’s power and range, and shows that work priorities have changed as he tackles a difficult domestic economy amid a more complex external environment than his predecessor had.

“Back in 2013, China still had a more sympathetic, or a more patient international audience, the relationships with America were still not as difficult as they are now ... and China’s domestic economy was less problematic than it is today,” said Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London.

The premier must really focus on the domestic issues because they are the most consequential and important at the moment, according to Brown.

The premiership of Li Keqiang, who died in October, is remembered by many for his more frequent and visible presence and highly personalised style at diplomatic events.

Between 2013 and 2023, state media detailed Li Keqiang’s interactions with his counterparts from major economies.

One such moment was a small dinner hosted by former German chancellor Angela Merkel in her villa in May 2017, where the two, holding their glasses against the sunset in a Berlin suburban garden, discussed unfinished business left over from their official talks during the day.

“It was a sunny day yesterday, and so it will be tomorrow and the day after,” Li Keqiang said at a press conference with Merkel during the same trip.

As Li Qiang looks set to mark the first anniversary of his job and deliver his maiden government work report next week, there have been few such details observed in his diplomatic dealings.

During the past year, as China’s diplomacy was returning to pre-pandemic norms, Li has attended fewer diplomatic events, spent fewer days abroad and hosted fewer events during his foreign visits compared to the first years of Li Keqiang’s two terms, according to official information.

In the year since he was sworn in, Li Qiang attended 140 events where he met foreign guests, either at home and abroad.

That is fewer than the 163 gatherings Li Keqiang attended in the same period five years ago, and the 219 a decade ago during his first year as premier starting in March 2013.

Among Li Qiang’s meetings with foreign guests, 48 of them – or about one-third – took place outside China. Li Keqiang held around half his meetings with foreign guests outside China in the first year of both his terms.

The incumbent premier has made four overseas trips during the year, with his first trip to Germany and France. He attended 48 events during these trips – fewer than the 93 events Li Keqiang made during his four trips five years ago, and 96 events a decade ago.

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Li Qiang’s international trips are also shorter and less diverse than his predecessor’s whose schedule included more joint press conferences with foreign officials following their meetings and more arranged visits of local companies and projects.

However, Li Qiang has had a greater presence at some other diplomatic events. He represented Xi at the G20 meeting in New Delhi in September, making him the first Chinese premier to attend the summit. There, he held brief talks with foreign leaders, including US President Joe Biden, on the sidelines of the event.

Li Qiang has also spent more time on the road on inspection tours in China. He has spent 34 days on 18 inspection tours since March, visiting 19 provinces and municipalities, including Shanghai and Chongqing.

That is well above the 17 days Li Keqiang spent on 10 inspection trips five years ago, and the 23 days on 11 trips during the first year of his tenure as premier.

Li Qiang’s first stop as a premier was in March in central China’s Hunan province to tour factories that make electric vehicles, high-speed locomotives and construction machinery. He has travelled to the country’s northeastern rust belt, highlighting domestic innovation and emphasising the importance of state enterprises.

During his trip to Shanghai in July, Li Qiang held a meeting with eight provincial leaders during his two-day inspection of the city’s free-trade zone. And his most recent trip was to the central province of Shanxi this month to visit hi-tech manufacturing companies.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) confers with Premier Li Qiang during a session of China’s National People’s Congress last year. Photo: AP

This pattern of spending more time on inspection tours follows a nationwide fact-finding drive launched in March, which echoed a pledge Li Qiang made at his first press conference as premier. At the time, he said he would direct government officials to carry out more field research and solicit public feedback instead of “sitting in the office”.

Shan Wei, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute, said Li Qiang had generally been given “a higher degree of mandate” and “more room for autonomous decisions” on economic and social matters.

But he had less authority on other matters, including those related to foreign affairs. “The range of his power has been narrowed,” Shan said.

Rana Mitter, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, said revitalising the domestic economy was a top priority for the party.

“Traditionally, the premier has had the economy as his portfolio, and Li Qiang’s Shanghai background gives him a particular reputation as business friendly. That may be why he is seemingly so active in areas that involve economic revitalisation. Although international travel is important, the domestic economy may well be considered a greater priority for now,” he said.

Brown said the different domestic and international environments facing Li Qiang and his predecessor were reflected in their policy priorities.

But he also noted it was difficult for now to determine what Li Qiang’s leadership vision was, compared with that of his predecessor.

“I think that they have a different political persona. Li Qiang has only been in the position for a year. It’s still early days so we can’t draw any huge conclusions,” Brown said.

“But I would say that the outside world had a much stronger idea of who Li Keqiang was, what he represented, in ways which are still not entirely clear for Li Qiang.”

A mainland-based political analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity said Li Qiang’s scaled-down presence in foreign affairs coincided with China hosting fewer diplomatic events amid the pandemic’s lasting impact and a decline in mutual trust under boosted counter-espionage efforts.

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The analyst said Li Keqiang continued his own predecessors’ style of diplomacy during his first term while using greater transparency to hold frequent press conferences and arrange more local visits and meetings.

James Zimmerman, a partner in the Beijing office of Perkins Coie law firm and a former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, said he understood Li Qiang’s loyalty to Xi was “his key qualification” and that the premier helped develop Xi’s present policies.

But he acknowledged that constraints on Li Qiang’s role were “a systemic issue”.

“There is little hope that Li Qiang will bring any fresh ideas to the table to help China overcome its economic weakening or help reduce the geopolitical tensions over Beijing’s support of Russia and bullying of its Asian neighbours,” Zimmerman said.

“There is little hope that anything Li says will encourage foreign investors to up their game and increase their investments. Sure, he can claim that China is open to foreign investment but actions speak louder than words.”

One foreign businessperson based in China who requested anonymity, spoke of an impression of Li Qiang as “open minded and pro-business”, but also noted that “maybe he has not been travelling as much as we have hoped”.

The businessperson said it was hoped Li Qiang would “engage more externally with Europe ... having discussions about things that are problematic in the relationship” to ensure workable ties in future.

And on trade and economic prospects the businessperson said, “one thing that maybe worries us a little bit is that ... the security agenda is more important than the trade agenda, the economics agenda”.

“During his first years as party secretary in Shanghai, he was very much welcomed by the business community and he was seen as a business-friendly leader. We hope some of that will also be reflected at the national level,” the foreign businessperson said.

“But again, our concern is that maybe what we hope as natural instincts towards being pro-business are now being hampered by the security agenda.”

Li Qiang seems to have hosted fewer domestic meetings than Li Keqiang. He presided over 58 meetings over the past year, fewer than the 72 his predecessor chaired during his first year as the premier a decade ago.

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Li Qiang chaired fewer cabinet meetings, overseeing 25 State Council executive meetings compared with Li Keqiang chairing 39 such meetings during the first year of both his two terms.

The drop in the number of meetings chaired may be a result of changes in March to the State Council’s working rules, including a revision that reduces the frequency of State Council executive meetings to two to three times a month instead of every week.

The amendment was approved at the first plenary meeting of the cabinet, three days after Li Qiang’s appointment as premier, during which he said the government’s mission was to focus on implementing the party’s decisions.

A procedural change was also observed in his meetings with Hong Kong and Macau leaders during their annual duty visits to Beijing. In December, Xi and Li Qiang together met each chief executive, marking a contrast to previous duty visits when the premier would meet the officials in separate meetings.

Previously, Li Qiang had already marked a new approach when he took a chartered flight for his first overseas trip, instead of a special plane that his predecessors would use, a move that observers say meant to show deference to Xi and cut down on bureaucracy.

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