China's Li Keqiang, a premier schooled in free thought

BEIJING Fri Mar 15, 2013 1:35am EDT

Li Keqiang addresses an EU-China High Level meeting on Energy at the EC headquarters in Brussels May 3, 2012. REUTERS/Thierry Charlier/Pool

Li Keqiang addresses an EU-China High Level meeting on Energy at the EC headquarters in Brussels May 3, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Thierry Charlier/Pool

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BEIJING (Reuters) - China's new premier, Li Keqiang, stands out for his casual and disarming command of English in contrast with some other top leaders who can stand around looking awkward in the presence of English-speaking dignitaries.

On Friday, delegates to China's rubber stamp parliament voted Li in as premier almost unanimously in the Great Hall of the People.

Li's English skills say more about the man who will run the world's second-largest economy than just an ability to chat with U.S. 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 Mao Zedong's 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 paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. That period ended in the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests that the military crushed.

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 famed English jurist Lord Denning into Chinese.

Li arrived at university in early 1978 from Anhui province in eastern China, a poor farming area 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, one of the few Chinese law professors schooled in the West to survive Mao's purges, and recalled the heady atmosphere of the time.

"SCHOLARLY OUTLOOK"

"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 mould a temperament, to cultivate a scholarly outlook."

But while classmates headed off to policy research, independent activism and even outright dissent, Li struck a more cautious stance, abandoning ideas of study abroad and climbing the 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, a well-known advocate of market reforms.

In 1998, he was sent to Henan province, a poor and restless rural belt of central China, rising to become party secretary for two years, during which he was accused by activists of cracking down after an AIDS scandal.

In late 2004, he was made party chief of Liaoning, a rustbelt province striving to attract investment and reinvent itself as a modern industrial heartland.

Li was named to the powerful nine-member party standing committee in 2007.

Li's patron, Hu Jintao, began his tenure as president with promises of respecting the law and constitution. But his government oversaw a crackdown on dissent that resorted to widespread extra-judicial detentions.

Hu was replaced on Thursday by Xi Jinping. Li replaced Wen Jiabao as premier.

Today, Li appears more at ease in small groups than in public. Businessmen and academics say they have been impressed with his diligent study of policy.

His ascent marks an extraordinary rise for a man who, as a youth, worked on a commune in Anhui'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 reform would require more unified support for any serious change.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

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