PARIS — France rolled out the proverbial red carpet this past week for Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, offering what one diplomatic source described as "presidential treatment."
The welcome contrasts with the second-fiddle status Li is used to back in China, where he is more often than not overshadowed by President Xi Jinping, with whom he came to power in 2013 with a shared commitment to modernize the Chinese economy.
"Though Xi Jinping has the more important position, Li Keqiang is fully invested in his role of head of China's State Council," the diplomatic source told Le Monde. "As such, he is indispensable in matters for which the state planning commission is responsible." The planning body, now known was the National Development and Reform Commission of the People's Republic of China (NDRC), plays an essential part when it comes to signing major contacts, such as with Airbus.
Keqiang arrived in the country Tuesday following a quick stop in Brussels for the China-EU summit. The prime minister began his three-day visit by attending an official ceremony with his French counterpart, Manuel Valls. Later he lunched with President François Hollande. Keqiang, 59, was accompanied by his wife, a university teacher specialized in translating works about nature. After Paris the couple visited Toulouse and, at Keqiang's request, Marseilles and Arles.
An obedient soldier
Li Keqiang is known for being warmer and more straightforward than Xi Jinping. He is also the one, when the going gets tough, who runs into battle. He is an active player in the government's crackdown on corruption, and has often and openly criticized the country's bureaucracy. He has also pushed for easing certain red-tape procedures, making it easier, for example, to create start-ups. "Why do the administrative services hinder ordinary citizens so much?" he said in May.
As recently as last year, political commentators abroad were questioning whether Keqiang would be able to hold his position beyond 2017. But at home, his public rants against the communist bureaucracy have proven to be surprisingly popular.
After he rose through the ranks of the Communist Youth League, Keqiang was expected to have a bright future, perhaps even become president. In the end, though, the top job went to Jinping (nicknamed the Red Prince).
Since then, Keqiang has assumed the role of obedient soldier, backing Jinping as the latter cracks down on corruption and political dissent and, as one Chinese observer pointed out, "puts the focus back on the Communist party." Jinping, the observer explained, behaves as the "owner of the family estate" whereas his predecessors were merely "managers."
China's previous prime minister, Wen Jiabao, managed at moments to voice a different opinion from the rest of the party's leaders. Keqiang, in contrast, has towed the party line. And he appears powerless, say analysts, amid Xi Jinping's increasingly brutal crackdown on web users and social activists such as lawyers.
Keqiang, who has a Ph.D in economics and a Master's degree in law, has the most impressive resume among Chinese leaders. "But he has very little leeway when it comes to politics and institutions," says Wang Juntao, a Tiananmen Square dissident who took refuge in the United States. Juntao knows Keqiang from their time together (1977-1981) at Beijing University.
At the time, the university was teeming with people who wanted political liberalization in China. Juntao believes those ideas "moulded" Li Keqiang's political views. "Li Keqiang is not a headstrong politician. He will follow no matter what Xi decides," the Chinese dissident says. "But deep down, he has the greatest contempt for the policies carried out today."