Premier Li emerges from the shadows amid Xi’s U-turn

Sending one of his ‘Xicophants’ to the G20 summit makes sense for China’s boss of bosses

Premier Li Qiang is emerging from the shadows and stepping into the international spotlight even if the optics are clouded in controversy. 

As a “trusted” confidant of President Xi Jinping, he made a whistle-stop trip to the ASEAN summit of nations in Jakarta this week before heading off to the G20 meeting in New Delhi.

His big boss had penciled in a diplomatic date with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the glitzy gathering in the Indian capital before unexpectedly pulling out at the weekend.

Comrade Xi’s decision to stay in China has fueled the rumor mill about the state of his health, a fallout with India’s Prime Minister and G20 host Narendra Modi and political problems in his own backyard.

“It seems plausible that Xi’s own paranoia is growing in the wake of China’s most widespread public protests in decades and the country’s economic downturn. All this might make travel seem riskier,” Foreign Policy’s China Brief reported this week.

“There is [also] the chance that Xi is simply sick. He also skipped making a scheduled speech at the BRICS summit, and he appeared the next day looking tired or ill. In China’s political system, acknowledging that the leader is sick is impossible,” it said.

Xi likely feels confident that Li won’t overshadow him.

Alfred Wu, of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore

Chairman of Everything:

  • Control freak Xi has become the “target for blame” as the world’s second-largest economy hemorrhages.
  • Party doctrine has failed to fix a property meltdown, spiraling government debt and soaring unemployment among the young.
  • Bungled policies and his obsessive “zero-Covid” approach have also questioned his competency amid shrinking foreign and domestic investment.

Delve deeper: It is difficult to penetrate the veil of secrecy that shrouds the Communist Party and Xi’s inner circle. But sending “Xicophant” Li to ASEAN and the G20 makes sense.

Between the lines: “[He] is [a] trusted aide. Xi likely feels confident that Li won’t overshadow him given his low-key personality,” Alfred Wu, of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, said as reported by Bloomberg.

Big picture: Still, Xi’s 64-year-old sidekick will not be able to fix China’s tarnished image on the global stage or ease tensions between Beijing and Washington’s alliance of democracies.

China Factor comment: What is certain is that Li will parrot his master’s voice about “opening up” and “win-win” cooperation. If anyone is around to listen to him.