Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang speaks at the opening ceremony of the WAIC in Shanghai
Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang speaks at the opening ceremony of the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai, China July 9, 2020. Reuters

Once seen as a sure bet for elevation to China's elite Politburo Standing Committee or even as the country's next premier, Li Qiang's glide path to the upcoming Communist Party Congress was buffeted by Shanghai's grinding two-month COVID-19 lockdown.

As the top official in China's commercial hub and its most populous city, Li's position as Shanghai party chief has traditionally been a stepping stone towards a top-two role in China's power structure - including for Xi Jinping himself.

While it is not clear whether or how much Li's political star was dimmed by the Shanghai debacle - which caused severe economic damage and provoked widespread protests - his future will be one of the most intriguing storylines of the Congress that begins on Oct. 16.

With Xi widely expected to clinch a precedent-breaking third leadership term at the party congress, much of the focus will be on who joins him on the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and who among that group is tapped to be China's next premier.

Current Premier Li Keqiang will step down in March after serving two terms.

Numerous local-level officials have seen their careers derailed by coronavirus outbreaks on their watch under China's strict zero-COVID policy, but they did not share Li's stature or history with Xi.

With Xi having steadily consolidated authority to become China's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, loyalty counts.

"For Xi, the absolute security he craves can only come with absolute control. If he has his way, he would want to stuff the whole PSC with his own people, including Li Qiang," said Chen Daoyin, a political commentator formerly with Shanghai University of Political Science and Law and now based in Chile.

"It's near impossible for Li, who owes his political career largely to Xi, to even consider doing anything to undermine Xi. Hence he is a safe bet."


A native of Zhejiang province, Li, 63, was Xi's chief of staff - a role for the most trusted confidants - from 2004 to 2007 when Xi was party chief of Zhejiang.

Li's promotion to governor of the economic powerhouse province in 2013, the year Xi became president, meant he had been put on the path by Xi to be groomed for bigger roles.

In 2015, Li accompanied Xi on a visit to the United States to meet then-President Barack Obama. In Seattle with Xi, Li gave a speech calling for more cooperation between Zhejiang and U.S. firms.

When Xi removed several officials in Jiangsu province as part of a corruption crackdown and needed someone trustworthy to fill the political vacuum, he sent in Li in 2016, elevating him to provincial party chief.

During the lockdown of Shanghai's 25 million people, Li repeatedly appeared in state media visiting residential compounds and hospitals.

Making his rounds, he reiterated the COVID party line: "We must resolutely implement the spirit of the important instructions by Party Secretary Xi Jinping and steadfastly persist in the dynamic-zero approach".

Li became a target for some of the social media ire that made it past censors during the lockdown.

Still, several Shanghai business-people told Reuters they were impressed with Li's pragmatic approach to problem-solving.

One Shanghai-based entrepreneur said he was surprised when Li responded to an unsolicited letter seeking help.

"He attended to our case and cleared the unnecessary regulatory obstacles for us, even though we were just a small private company," said the business owner, declining to be named given the sensitivity of discussing politics in China.