Li Keqiang, China's new premier, offered an early sign of progress toward democracy in his initial press conference over the weekend.
SHANGHAI – I arrived here late Sunday afternoon (March 17)--the same day the annual session of the National People’s Congress concluded in Beijing. True to St. Patrick’s Day, the sky was green. Well, technically, whatever was floating in the air between the sky and my taxi was a sort of greenish haze.
In my hotel room, I turned on the TV, flipping between CNN and the 24-hour English news channel of China Central Television (CCTV), to watch an extensive press conference with China’s new premier, Li Keqiang. This was his media debut.
The 57 year-old Li, described as fluent in English, seems energetic, never fails to smile on cue, and looked at ease with the questions thrown at him during a 1.5-hour press briefing in a room packed with close to 1,000 reporters and photographers.
Later on, I learned that all the questions were vetted in advance. Of course.
Topics Li touched on during the press conference included the crackdown on government corruption, China’s plan for 7.5 percent annual average economic growth over the next few years (to double 2010 per capita GDP and personal income by 2020), and the promise of an “iron fist” against pollution.
China's new premier Li Keqiang at his media debut
Style vs. substance
My first impression is that Li’s just saying what people want to hear. Although Li may have earned style points, what he actually delivers in substance is far from clear.
My second impression is that I’m tired of the usual style vs. substance argument. In a developing nation, any sign of open-style communication emerging from the top political figure is a substantial signal.
Expressing in a public forum (i.e. press conference) what the nation’s leadership thinks is an early sign of progress toward democracy. It’s definitely a step in the right direction. So, I’m reluctant knock Li’s confident, approachable style. After all, a lot of Mikhail Gorbachev’s first moves as premier of the Soviet Union were mere “gestures.”
Li’s first measurable commitments, offered in his speech, included: smaller government (reduction in the number of people on the government payroll); no new government buildings; a freeze on overseas trips and official vehicles; and slashing the 1,700-step government-approval process by a third