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

PARIS â€" 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."

"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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Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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