China’s premier-elect, Li Keqiang, ran a province of 93 million people that endured three deadly fire disasters and an HIV blood scandal on his watch. His run of bad luck as Governor of Henan from 1998 to 2004 earned him the nickname Three-Fires Li in the foreign press. Beijing’s Communist officialdom, however, has high hopes for Li, an award-winning economist for his work on urbanization, in his new role as the country’s top economic policymaker.
In March, Li, 57, will inherit an economy forecast to grow at 7 percent in 2013, the slowest pace in at least 23 years, according to investment fund company Pimco. It will take major economic reforms to arrest the slowdown, encourage growth of globally competitive private sector companies, and address a widening income gap. China’s new leadership team, led by incoming Communist Party General Secretary and President-elect Xi Jinping, needs to roll back the dominant state-owned enterprises that receive the majority of loans from government-controlled banks, according to the World Bank’s “China 2030” study, which Li has publicly endorsed. Another task: Allow the markets—not bureaucrats—to determine the prices for everything from bank loans to raw materials.
Although millions have escaped poverty since Deng Xiaoping opened China to foreign investment and put in place limited reforms in 1978, the world’s second biggest economy faces new challenges—namely, what economists call the middle-income trap. That refers to the slower growth developing economies encounter when they fail to implement political, financial, and legal reforms needed to create a bigger middle class. Of 101 middle-income economies in 1960, only 13 became high-income societies by 2008, the World Bank estimates. The bank defines high-income as $12,476 or more in per-capita gross national income.
In speeches, Li hasn’t been shy about pointing to what he thinks are China’s economic shortcomings: an unsustainable rate of investment, an overdependence on exports, weak domestic consumption, and an underdeveloped service sector. Li has also emphasized the growing income inequality that resulted in city dwellers earning 3.3 times more than their rural counterparts in 2009.
More than 100 million people left farms for cities during Hu Jintao’s presidency, many for jobs in factories, and Li wants to see even faster urban migration to boost incomes. By 2030 as many as 300 million more people will have moved from the countryside to join 600 million already living in cities, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates. Urbanization “is the fuel for a sustained high-investment ratio in Chinese GDP,” says Stephen Roach, former nonexecutive chairman at Morgan Stanley (MS) in Asia and a senior fellow at Yale University. “But here’s the catch—urbanization is a transition strategy at best. It will have to have an increasingly services-led job creation to absorb the influx of surplus labor, and only then can the urbanization strategy really come to life.”
Rebalancing Chinese growth away from exports and expanding middle-class incomes will require taking on provincial governments and state-run companies and banks that have grown rich off the current system. “The big question is whether China will change before a crisis forces it to,” says David Loevinger, former senior coordinator for China affairs at the U.S. Treasury Department.
Few dispute Li’s economic credentials. During the years he spent running Henan and then Liaoning, these regions grew at more than 10 percent annually. He has a law degree and a Ph.D. in economics from Peking University. “He is a new generation of leader,” says Robert Lawrence Kuhn, author of How China’s Leaders Think and an adviser to the Chinese government. Yet it will take more than economic savvy to push through controversial economic reforms. Big state companies and bureaucrats “won’t be listening to a weak premier,” says Lam Wo Lap Willy, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. China needs an iron-fisted reformer like Premier Zhu Rongji, who fought government corruption and forced state-owned banks to deal with dud loans during the 1990s, he says. “People feared Zhu Rongji,” says Lam. “But nobody is going to fear Li Keqiang.”