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Li Qiang, Xi Jinping’s loyal lieutenant | International

His face inscrutable, Li Qiang stood motionless, like a sentry, in the Great Hall of the People. Like other Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders, he was dressed in a dark suit and red tie. His untinted eyeglasses seem to be only distinguishing feature from many of his CCP peers. On October 23, six men emerged from a gold door and climbed the Great Hall stage behind President Xi Jinping to be presented to the world as the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, the nation’s top leadership.

It was the culminating event of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, and the seven men entered the Great Hall in rank order of the positions they will assume in March 2023. As General Secretary of the CCP, President Xi led the way, closely followed by 63-year-old Li Qiang, who will most likely become China’s next prime minister, a meteoric rise to power that surprised almost everyone.

A close Xi ally, Li has served as the party secretary in Shanghai for the last five years. Anyone who was expecting China to abandon its strict zero-Covid strategy will probably be disappointed by Li’s ascendancy, since he was the man tapped by Xi to lock down a city of 25 million people for more than two months last spring. The move unleashed a burst of anger among Shanghai residents and paralyzed the economy in the country’s financial nerve center.

But the man remains an enigma to outsiders. For some, his stern demeanor and square jaw represent Xi’s powerplays to secure an unprecedented third term. Others see him as a pro-business counterbalance to hardliners and point to his rhetoric of openness and reform. Outgoing Premier Li Keqiang was once seen as a leading reformist, but his influence has waned in Xi’s shadow to the point that he is considered one of the least influential prime ministers in recent decades.

In a 2013 interview with Caixin, China’s leading business and financial news outlet, Li Qiang boasted of the entrepreneurial spirit of Zhejiang, his dynamic home province in eastern China. He had just been appointed governor of the province and touted the enterprising Zhejiang merchants who “earned their first yuan shining shoes.” He said deregulation was an important stimulus for private enterprise and industrial development. “The biggest success in China’s campaign of economic reform and opening has been the measures to encourage innovation and initiative.”

It was a different time. Tech titans like Jack Ma, the founder of ecommerce giant Alibaba (based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang), had not yet fallen from grace. Li rubbed shoulders with Ma at tech conferences and encouraged the Chinese to emulate him. But Ma is now a symbol of Xi’s “new era” and of Beijing’s campaign to subjugate China’s tech industry. He is rarely seen in public now after the Chinese government blocked an initial public offering (IPO) for Ma’s Ant Group, the world’s largest financial technology firm, after he openly criticized global banking laws and China’s regulatory system in 2020. Chinese authorities are now planning to fine Ant Group over $1 billion, according to a Reuters report.

One prominent party member and businessman says that Li and Xi trust each other, because both advocate the strong central government that is needed in a huge, overpopulated country like China. “I think they make a good team and won’t have many disputes,” he said, which will make for more efficient decision-making and relegate the prime minister to a weaker role. He is also confident that the country will continue to open up the economy, a journey that began in the “golden years,” as he called the early 2000s.

Li studied agricultural mechanization at Zhejiang Agricultural University (now Zhejiang Wanli College), and began his professional career working in an electromechanical irrigation station. He became secretary of the local Communist Youth League and joined the CCP when he was 24. Li slowly worked his way up the colossal power pyramid and gained various party leadership positions in his province. In the 1990s, he pursued graduate studies in management engineering, and attended the Central Party School for on-the-job graduate studies in world economics from 2001 to 2004. He received an executive Master of Business Administration from Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 2005.

Li first met Xi Jinping in 2004 when he started working as Xi’s chief of staff at the Zhejiang CCP Provincial Committee. Three years later, Xi was elected First Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, consolidating his position as President Hu Jintao’s eventual successor. When Xi became president in 2012, Li rode his coattails to the top, demonstrating “Xi’s intention to help bolster Li’s leadership credentials,” according to a Brookings Institute profile.

Li was promoted in 2013 to governor of Zhejiang, and promoted again in 2016 to party secretary of Jiangsu province. Just one year later, he was appointed party secretary of Shanghai, the same post Xi held before ascending to loftier roles. “Li Qiang is one of Xi Jinping’s most trusted protégés,” says the Brookings profile.

“He has a strong pro-business track record that’s focused on economic growth, innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Bettina Schoen-Behanzin, vice president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, an organization that represents 1,800 European companies. Schoen-Behanzin says that Li has been one of the few senior officials to defend western-made RNA vaccines. “It remains to be seen whether he will prioritize business interests, the economy and China’s economic opening, or whether he will strictly adhere to Xi’s zero-Covid policy.”

While he was governor of Shanghai, Li developed a relationship with American entrepreneur Elon Musk. In 2019, Tesla opened its first overseas plant in Shanghai at a time when bilateral relations were tense during the Trump administration. Built in just one year, the Shanghai factory is now Tesla’s largest, and has the capacity to produce 750,000 vehicles a year. Tesla was able to keep its Chinese production lines rolling during Covid shutdowns by housing thousands of workers in special, closed-loop facilities.

Schoen-Behanzin’s says the two-month lockdown last spring was “a big blow to Shanghai’s international reputation.” As the city begins to rebound, she is not quite sure which way the wind will blow. “The new leaders are all loyal [to Xi], which suggests that economic growth policies will take a back seat to stability and control measures.”

Celvin Wong (not his real name), a Shanghai-based publicist who spent more than 70 days in Covid confinement last spring, says “Li’s motives are transparent. What has he done? Nothing – he just follows orders.” Celvin claims that after a failed attempt to coexist with the virus, the Shanghai lockdown was the predictable result of Li’s quest “to get promoted and enter the party’s inner circle. He had to show he could be tough and prove his loyalty to you-know-who – the big guy,” said Celvin, obviously reluctant to say the name.

Loyalty to Xi

Bruce Dickson, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University (Washington, DC) and author of The Party and the People (Princeton University Press, 2021), believes that Li’s climb to the top shows that the CCP is no longer the meritocracy it used to be. Many thought Li would be fired for this handling of the latest Covid crisis, but instead he was rewarded. In an online meeting with reporters, Dickson said it wasn’t a reward for achievement, but for his loyalty to Xi.

Li’s critics point to his lack of experience in Beijing’s central government, while supporters laud his experience in three of China’s economic powerhouses – Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shanghai. They believe that Li’s close relationship with Xi will enable him to convey a first-hand view of China’s economic reality to the president.

Dickson doubts that anyone can act as a counterweight to Xi, or that the president will encourage “independent thinking” in his inner circle. “Li has not reached his current position by challenging his old friend, but by going along. I don’t know how much autonomy he will have if he becomes prime minister.” When Li does assume that position, Dickson says we will have to wait and see if the president gives back the economic authority he “usurped” from Premier Li Kechiang. If Xi does that, it could signal a greater willingness to share power. If not, perhaps the parade of six men in suits who followed Xi onto the Great Hall stage was just for show.

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Amidst the Technological Conflict with the US, China Intensifies Efforts in AI and Microchip Development

China is actively pursuing the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and semiconductors to secure its position in the global race for technological superiority, which has become a significant source of geopolitical tension with the United States.

Recognizing the critical importance of these two fields for China’s economic and military future, Beijing is intensifying its efforts to find domestic solutions. This comes at a time when the U.S. is aiming to restrict Chinese access to cutting-edge technology necessary for high-tech microchip production. Through substantial investments and President Xi Jinping’s call for “self-sufficiency” in science and technology, China’s strategy focuses on fostering a collaborative environment that accelerates development and narrows the gap between China and the West.

During a speech at the ZGC Forum, Mei Jianping of China’s Ministry of Science and Technology acknowledged the existing gap in various areas crucial to AI progress compared to developed countries. The technology fair, held in Beijing’s Zhongguancun district, a prominent tech hub, prominently features AI as one of its hot topics. Mei emphasized the need for an exchange of ideas and collective contributions to position China’s next generation of AI and its scientific and technological industry on par with the rest of the world.

The ZGC Forum encompasses various events related to sustainable development, financial technology, smart cities, identifying transformative young entrepreneurs, and the significance of innovation in state-run companies.

Dr. Yu Yue, from the Strategic Alliance for Technological Innovation in the Chinese Artificial Intelligence Industry, outlined China’s plan to boost technological growth through the establishment of a nationwide network of AI developers. The objective is to ensure high-quality development at every computing center and promote extensive collaboration, constructing a comprehensive network that facilitates the new model of AI technology development.

To inaugurate the ZGC Forum, President Xi sent a letter emphasizing the need for greater global collaboration without explicitly mentioning U.S. restrictions. Xi highlighted the importance of international cooperation, openness, and knowledge sharing to address common development challenges amid the ongoing scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation.

Renowned figures such as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates also participated in the forum, expressing their belief that China has the potential to contribute uniquely by sharing its technologies and experiences.

The forum takes place against the backdrop of strained U.S.-China relations due to repeated disputes over Taiwan and the U.S. shooting down an alleged Chinese spy balloon that violated American airspace without permission. However, recent weeks have shown some signs of thawing, as mentioned by U.S. President Joe Biden during the G7 summit in Hiroshima.

Another positive development occurred with a meeting between China’s commerce minister, Wang Wentao, and his U.S. counterpart, Gina Raimondo. Described as “candid” by the American government, the talks addressed the impacts each country’s actions have had on the microchip sector. Wang expressed concerns regarding the U.S.’s China policies related to the economy, trade, semiconductors, export control, and outbound investments review. Raimondo, in turn, voiced her concerns about China’s increasing restrictions on U.S. interests, such as the recent ban on the use of Micron’s semiconductors in critical infrastructure projects.

China’s actions can be partially seen as a response to Washington’s decision in October to limit exports of microchip-manufacturing technologies to China, aiming to prevent China from developing cutting-edge weapons. These microprocessors are essential for AI and the advancement of other state-of-the-art technologies like smart electric vehicles. Taiwan plays a significant role in this standoff as it produces 60% of global microchips and 90% of the most advanced variants. The country’s capability to produce three-nanometer chips surpasses China’s, making it a crucial factor in this landscape. In March, Xi directly accused the U.S. of leading a Western strategy of “containment, encirclement, and suppression” against China to hinder its development.

Despite the geopolitical tensions, the atmosphere at the ZGC Forum was marked by confidence in the future. Huo Jiaqi, a 23-year-old postgraduate student from the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, expressed optimism, stating that China has overcome similar challenges in its history. The forum showcased a wide range of technological advancements, including smart humanoid robots, police robots, drones, and metaverse avatars parading on LED screens.

In summary, China is determined not to be left behind in the global race for technological superiority in AI and semiconductors. The country recognizes the significance of these fields for its economic and military progress. With substantial investments and a focus on fostering collaboration and development, China aims to bridge the gap with developed countries. The ZGC Forum serves as a platform for discussing and showcasing advancements in various technological areas. Despite the ongoing tensions with the U.S., there are indications of a potential thaw in relations, as recent meetings between Chinese and U.S. officials demonstrate. The forum reflects China’s commitment to achieving self-sufficiency and becoming a key player in the global technology landscape.

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Global Affairs

South African president appoints judge to oversee weapons-for-Russia inquiry | International

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has appointed a judge to oversee an inquiry into allegations that the country supplied arms to Russia on a ship that docked secretly at a naval base in December.

The allegations were made this month by the United States’ ambassador to South Africa, who said he was sure that weapons and ammunition were loaded onto the Russian-flagged cargo ship Lady R when it docked at the Simon’s Town naval base near Cape Town late last year.

Ambassador Reuben Brigety indicated that the U.S. had intelligence to sustain the allegation and he said he would bet his life on the accuracy of his claim that weapons were loaded onto the ship.

The Lady R container-carrying ship is under U.S. sanctions for being tied to a company that has transported weapons to aid the Russian war effort in Ukraine.

South Africa has denied there was any government-sanctioned deal to provide weapons to Russia, although it hasn’t categorically ruled out that an unofficial transaction took place involving another entity.

Judge P.M.D. Mojapelo, a former Supreme Court of Appeal judge, was appointed chairman of a three-member panel to investigate the incident, Ramaphosa’s office said in a statement on Sunday. A lawyer and a former minister of justice were also appointed.

The panel has six weeks to complete its investigations and another two weeks from then to provide a report to Ramaphosa, the president’s office said.

“The panel has been tasked to establish persons who were aware of the cargo ship’s arrival, and, if any, the contents to be off-loaded or loaded, the departure and destination of the cargo,” Ramaphosa’s office said.

Ramaphosa ordered the inquiry because of the seriousness of the allegations and “the impact of this matter on South Africa’s international relations,” his office said.

South Africa could be in breach of international law and its own laws regarding weapons sales if it is found to have supplied arms to Moscow for the war in Ukraine.

The incident has strained relations between the U.S. and South Africa, which is Africa’s most developed economy and a key Western partner on the continent.

South African Defense Minister Thandi Modise has said the Lady R was visiting to deliver an ammunition shipment from Russia that was ordered by South Africa in 2018 but was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Modise has refused to release cargo documents related to the visit by the Lady R after requests by opposition parties, saying they are classified. She said she will release them to the inquiry, though.

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Sweden to Implement Permanent Residency Tests Commencing in 2027

A recent study conducted by the Swedish National Agency for Education has revealed significant disparities in the quality of teaching among different providers of Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) courses. Out of the 30 providers investigated, only six were found to offer good quality teaching, while the remaining 24 exhibited various issues, with three of them displaying serious deficiencies.

The report examined both distance learning and on-site classes, highlighting a particular concern regarding the lack of opportunities for students in distance classes to practice speaking Swedish. Helén Ängmo, the director-general of the agency, emphasized that insufficient opportunities for students to speak Swedish raise barriers for their integration into society and the labor market. Participation in dialogue, whether with healthcare providers, government agencies, or educational institutions, is crucial, and it is troubling to observe persistent quality issues in SFI, especially in relation to distance classes and their level of individual adaptation.

Although online classes offer greater flexibility for teachers to tailor course materials to students’ abilities, they generally provide fewer opportunities for varied interaction, as students are often required to work independently at home with limited chances for practicing spoken and written skills with their peers.

Another prevalent issue identified was the lack of opportunities for students to practice Swedish in everyday situations. Many students expressed their desire to learn conversational skills for interacting with people and engaging with government agencies and authorities.

Some students even reported being unable to communicate with supermarket staff despite having studied SFI for a considerable period of time. Others mentioned having learned how to communicate with staff at their children’s schools or preschools from their own children, as these topics were neglected in their SFI studies.

Furthermore, students with a higher proficiency in Swedish often faced a lack of challenge in class, and their influence on teaching methods was limited. However, providers that more frequently tailored classes to students’ interests, experiences, and goals were more successful in incorporating examples from their daily lives.

For instance, healthcare workers were given the opportunity to practice language used in the healthcare sector, while others received assistance in language skills necessary for picking up their children from school or completing various forms.

Teachers’ expectations and the support they received played a significant role in determining the quality of teaching. In classes where teachers felt there was insufficient assistance from school leadership, limited collaboration with their peers, or inadequate time for teacher-student contact in online courses, the quality of teaching tended to be poorer.

To address these issues, the agency emphasized the need for better support for teachers in developing and adapting their teaching methods to suit individual students. Only 55% of SFI teachers in the 2022/23 academic year possessed the necessary qualifications to teach SFI at the adult level, a figure deemed insufficient by the agency.

While acknowledging the potential benefits of online classes, the agency emphasized the importance of their further development to ensure that students in such programs have an equal opportunity to develop their Swedish communication skills compared to students attending in-person classes.

Online classes provide flexibility for individuals to combine their studies with work or parental responsibilities, but equal access to language development should be ensured.

The agency underscored the significance of SFI for Sweden as a country, emphasizing its role in providing individuals who do not have Swedish as their native language with the opportunity to learn Swedish and effectively communicate in everyday life, the community, the workplace, and further studies. Municipal-run Swedish for Immigrants classes for adults were highlighted as playing a vital role in this regard.

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