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In Xi´s Shadow: What Holds Back Chinese Premier Li Keqiang

Li Keqiang meets François Hollande in Paris on June 30, 2015.
Li Keqiang meets François Hollande in Paris on June 30, 2015.
Brice Pedroletti

PARISFrance 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."

"Little leeway"

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."

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Black Sea Survivor: Tale Of A Ukrainian Special Agent Thrown Overboard In Enemy Waters

This is a tale of a Ukrainian special forces operator who wound up surviving 14 hours at sea, staying afloat and dodging Russian air and sea patrols.

Black Sea Survivor: Tale Of A Ukrainian Special Agent Thrown Overboard In Enemy Waters

Looking at the Black Sea in Odessa, Ukraine.

Rustem Khalilov and Roksana Kasumova

KYIV — During a covert operation in the Black Sea, a Ukrainian special agent was thrown overboard and spent the next 14 hours alone at sea, surrounded by enemy forces.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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The agent, who uses the call-sign "Conan," agreed to speak to Ukrainska Pravda, to share the details of nearly being lost forever at sea. He also shared some background on how he arrived in the Ukrainian special forces. Having grown up in a village in a rural territory of Ukraine, Conan describes himself as "a simple guy."

He'd worked in law enforcement, personal security and had a job as a fitness trainer when Russia launched its full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. That's when he signed up with the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Main Directorate of Intelligence "Artan" battalion. It was nearly 18 months into his service, when Conan faced the most harrowing experience of the war. Here's his first-hand account:

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