9 Jan 2011

How China's number three man gets his information

A lot of what we know about Chinese Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, who begins his visit to the UK today, comes through US cables released by WikiLeaks. The cables also reveal how Mr Li gets his information, blogs Channel 4 News International Editor Lindsey Hilsum.

The man who will become China’s next premier is visiting the UK. Mandarin-speaking mandarins (ie: China experts in the Foreign Office) are excited, because Vice-Premier Li Keqiang – officially number seven in the Chinese Communist Party hierachy, but soon to be number three – may hold the key to getting more business for Britain in China.

It’s noticeable that Britain’s coalition government seems to think foreign policy is primarily a question of “selling Britain” – trade and investment are much higher up the agenda than anything else these days, and nowhere more so than China.

It’s hard to lecture China about human rights or Tibet when you’re trying to persuade its leaders to let British insurers and bankers into the Chinese market, and to headquarter their new global companies in London.

So Mr Li is seeing a wave-energy project and an “innovation park”, as well as having the normal political meetings, in the hope that he’ll go back to Beijing an Anglophile, ready to buy more British goods and allow more British companies to make money in China.

From the little we know, Mr Li isn’t especially well travelled, although he has been to the US and – according to a 2007 WikiLeaks cable – apparently told a former US Ambassador to China that he particularly liked Oklahoma. The ambassador noted that Li “displayed a good sense of humor and appeared relaxed and confident throughout”. We know that he has a law degree and – like President Hu Jintao – came up through the Communist Youth League.

Li was governor of Liaoning in north-eastern China when he had that meeting. According to the cable, “Although Liaoning residents are dissatisfied with education, health care and housing issues, it is corruption that makes them most angry, Li told the Ambassador.”

How did Mr Li know this? According to the cable, “To learn what is on the minds of the public, Li said he uses a variety of channels, official and unofficial. These include investigative reports, Li’s own inspection tours of grassroots areas, media reporting and letters addressed directly to him.

Sometimes, Li uses friends who are not from Liaoning to gather information about the province that he cannot obtain himself. Finally, there are the “official” channels of the Provincial People’s Congress and Political Consultative Conference.”

It’s interesting that he had to slip and slide around asking friends what’s going on, because the Chinese media and official party information didn’t tell him what he needed to know.

I wonder if that’s a lesson in freedom of the press that he’ll build on when he replaces Wen Jiabao as Premier late next year. No sign of it during his four day visit to the UK – there will be no opportunities for anyone in the media to ask Vice Premier Li questions or engage with him in any way.