Where other top Chinese leaders can only stand around and look awkward in the presence of English-speaking dignitaries, Vice Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) stands out for his casual and disarming command of the language.
Li’s English skills say more about the man who will run the world’s second-largest economy than just an ability to schmooze US chief executives and European prime ministers — they were learned as part of a surprisingly liberal university education.
More than three decades ago, Li entered the prestigious Peking University, a member of the storied “class of ‘77” who passed the first higher education entrance exams held after former Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) convulsive Cultural Revolution, which had effectively put university education on hold.
More than any other Chinese party leader, Li, 57, was immersed in the intellectual and political ferment of the following decade of reform under former Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平). That period ended in the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests that were crushed by the military.
As a 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.
He was caught up in the fervor of political and economic reform, helping translate The Due Process of Law by Lord Denning, the famed English jurist, into Chinese.
Li arrived at university in early 1978 from Anhui Province in eastern China, dirt-poor farming country where his father was an official and where he was sent to toil in the fields during the Cultural Revolution.
He chose law, a discipline silenced for years as a reactionary pursuit and in the late 1970s still steeped in Soviet-inspired doctrines.
In a brief memoir of his time at university, Li paid tribute to Gong Xiangrui (龔祥瑞), one of the few Chinese law professors schooled in the West to survive Mao’s purges, and recalled the heady atmosphere of the time.
“I was a student at Peking University for close to a decade, while a so-called ‘knowledge explosion’ was rapidly expanding,” Li wrote in an essay published in a 2008 book.
“I was searching for not just knowledge, but also to mold a temperament, to cultivate a scholarly outlook,” he said.
However, while classmates headed off to policy research, independent activism and even outright dissent, Li struck a more cautious course, abandoning ideas of study abroad and climbing the Chinese Communist Party’s Youth League, then a reformist-tinged ladder to higher office.
He rose in the Youth League while completing a master’s degree in law and then an economics doctorate under professor Li Yining (厲以寧), a well-known advocate of market reforms.
In 1998, he was sent to Henan Province, a poor and restless belt of rural central China, rising to become party secretary for two years, during which he was accused by activists of cracking down on them after an AIDS scandal.
In late 2004, he was made party chief of Liaoning Province, a rustbelt province striving to attract investment and reinvent itself as a modern industrial heartland.
Li was promoted to the powerful nine-member Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee in 2007.
Li’s patron, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), began his tenure as leader with promises of respecting the law and the constitution, but his government has since overseen a crackdown on dissent that resorted to widespread extra-judicial detentions.
Today, Li appears more at ease in small groups than in public. Businesspeople and academics say they have been impressed with his diligent studies of policy.
After a decade in power, Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) have retired from their party posts and will step down from the presidency and premiership respectively next year.
Li’s ascent marks an extraordinary rise for a man who, as a youth, worked on a commune in Anhui Province’s Fengyang County — notoriously poor even for Mao’s time and one of the first places to quietly revive private bonuses in farming in the late 1970s. By the time he left, Li was a party member and secretary of his production brigade.
In spite of his liberal past, Li’s elevation is unlikely to bring much change on the political front, where reforms would require more unified support for any serious change.