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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, right, is congratulated on his re-election by President Xi Jinping.
China People's Congress 2018

Chinese premier fades to secondary role despite re-election

Li Keqiang's control over economic policy has long since shifted to Xi Jinping

BEIJING -- Li Keqiang, who attracted global attention as an economic policymaker five years ago, stays on as Chinese premier but holds diminished clout now that President Xi Jinping has asserted leadership of running the world's second-largest economy.

Li was re-elected Sunday to a second five-year term by the National People's Congress, China's legislature.

A rumor in Beijing financial circles this month held that China's central bank would be made independent of the State Council -- the country's government, led by the premier. This change, so the story went, was meant to weaken the government.

The rumor turned out to be false when a bureaucratic reshuffling was announced later in the month. But it illustrates how deeply Li's star has waned.

The premier enjoyed the limelight early in his tenure for an economic reform stance heavy on empowering the private sector. He is credited with improving the job market and promoting the growth of China's internet economy, with Tencent Holdings and Alibaba Group Holding rising to become two of the world's most valuable companies.

But China's unexpectedly rapid loss of economic momentum would confound "Liconomics." When Li began his first term as premier, the State Council forecast real gross domestic product growth of 7.8% for 2015, well above the actual result of 6.9%.

"Frankly, economic policy during his first term was a mess," a government official said.

Until the Communist Party National Congress last October, this official had expected Li to be replaced as premier by Vice Premier Wang Yang, who is "knowledgeable about the economy." Wang now sits alongside Li and Xi on the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the country's most powerful decision-making body.

China's premiers long have served as managers of the economy while presidents handled political and foreign affairs. But around 2016, Xi usurped control of economic policy by various means including a Central Committee "leading group" that he chairs. The president has entrusted management to Harvard-educated economist Liu He, the head of his economic brain trust. Li's authority has been relegated to areas such as promoting innovation and deregulation.

Liu has stolen Li's thunder on occasion. One policy priority highlighted by the premier in his report to the National People's Congress -- cutting automobile-related taxes -- already had been talked up by Liu at the World Economic Forum in January.

Li looks likely to lose even more influence as Wang Qishan, Xi's right-hand man who retired from the Politburo Standing Committee, retained a prominent role in government with his election as vice president Sunday.

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