Reuters, October 28, 2011
BEIJING (Reuters)–Li Keqiang, China’s likely next premier, once huddled beside Yang Baikui in a Beijing university dorm, translating a book by an English judge, little separating the future Communist Party leader from his classmate who would be jailed as a subversive.
Over three decades ago, Vice Premier Li and Yang entered prestigious Peking University, both members of the storied “class of ‘77” who passed the first higher education entrance exams held after Mao Zedong’s convulsive Cultural Revolution.
More than any other Chinese party leader until now, Li was immersed in the intellectual and political ferment of the following decade of reform under Deng Xiaoping, which ended in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that were crushed by troops.
As a law student at Peking University, Li befriended ardent pro-democracy advocates, some of whom later became outright challengers to party control. His friends included activists who went into exile after the June 1989 crackdown.
Now Li, 56, is preparing to take the reins of government, and Yang and other sometime friends wonder how those heady times will shape his role running a one-party state that has increasingly bristled at calls for political relaxation.
“When we were working on translating the book and exchanging ideas, I thought his views were very liberal,” Yang recalled of Li, who as an English speaker is a rarity among senior Chinese leaders.
“His leanings were clearly pro-Western ideas. He certainly wasn’t conservative,” said Yang, now a bald 61-year-old translator in Beijing, in a recent interview. “When he opened his mouth, it wasn’t Mao slogans.”
“I personally think his past certainly left an impact, but he’s also been an official for over two decades, and so that’s also a factor,” said Yang, who was jailed for nearly a year on “counter-revolutionary” charges after helping write petitions and offer advice in the 1989 demonstrations.
Li has visited North and South Korea this week in Beijing’s latest effort to lift his profile. The secretive Communist Party will wait until a congress in late 2012 to confirm who will succeed President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, and the new premier will then be formally anointed by parliament in early 2013.
The Chinese translation that Li, Yang and a fellow student, Liu Yongan, labored over–“The Due Process Law” by Lord Alfred Denning–was recently reissued, a perhaps inadvertent reminder of the past of the man likely to succeed Premier Wen.
Li himself has been nearly silent about his university years. But his experiences could mark him out as more politically pragmatic than present leaders, including his patron, President Hu, said classmates and acquaintances of Li.
“Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were members of a red generation that had no opportunity to learn English or immerse themselves in new ideas or Western thought,” said Chen Ziming, back then a student-activist at another school who campaigned with Li’s classmates and got to know him.
“But the generation of Li Keqiang is different, and because of his law specialty and the length of his education, he was much more exposed to the new influences than, say, Xi Jinping,” said Chen, referring to President Hu’s likely successor.
“We don’t know for sure what this difference means, but it’s there, waiting to manifest itself in the future, if the opportunity arises,” said Chen, who was jailed after the 1989 crackdown and lives in Beijing, writing on politics.
Yang, the former classmate, said he had not had any contact with Li since the 1980s, and could only speculate at how deep a mark Li’s university years had left.
“I think it could make him more open and inclusive, more democratic, if the conditions allow. His ideas of rule of law might go deeper,” said Yang. “But he couldn’t show any of that now. That would be too dangerous.”