BEIJING (AP) – When President Hu Jintao needed someone to jump-start an economically listless province in China’s northeastern rust belt, he turned to a trusted aide with a doctorate in economics and a low-key manner.

Three years after Li Keqiang took the helm in Liaoning, manufacturing is booming, government coffers are brimming and foreign investment is pouring in. Last month, the province hosted a meeting of the glitzy World Economic Forum, where the heads of multinational firms hobnobbed with top Chinese leaders.

When China’s Communist Party elite gathers for a once-every-five-years congress starting Monday, all eyes will be on Li. Buoyed by his success and his ties to Hu, Li is widely tipped to join the party’s powerful inner circle. At the relatively boyish age of 52, he has long been seen as Hu’s favorite as a successor.

Li’s rise is also a sign of how much China is changing. Like Hu, Li belongs to a new generation of Chinese leaders who are pragmatic, steeped in economic experience and increasingly have backgrounds in finance and law, in contrast to the engineers and soldiers who preceded them.

Their leadership structure is more collegial, and their focus is on the economy, not on the communist political system they have inherited. In fact, their position on political reform and democracy is unclear – though many attended college during a period of fervent debate, they never speak publicly on these issues.

“China is at a turning point and Li is the sort of person with the ambition to achieve new goals,” said Wang Juntao, a political dissident who was a classmate of Li’s at Peking University.

Li’s succession is by no means assured. Hu – not due to step aside until 2012 at the earliest – needs to persuade other leaders that Li deserves promotion to the inner circle, the Politburo Standing Committee. If he fails, Li will have virtually no chance of succeeding him.

And Li has rivals, including Shanghai party chief Xi Jinping, who is also angling for a seat on the standing committee. The son of a leading revolutionary, the 54-year-old Xi hosted Hu on a high-profile visit to Shanghai on Oct. 1, China’s national day.

Xi ran two of China’s most vital coastal provinces before being named to lead its biggest and wealthiest city this spring. He enjoys praise from foreign investors and officials. U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson described him as a “guy who really knows how to get over the goal line.”

In contrast to Xi, Li was born into a peasant family in the poor eastern province of Anhui and got his first taste of leadership as party secretary of his commune.

Like others in this fifth generation of communist leaders, he came of age during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong’s violent experiment in radical communism. Chinese of his generation launched their careers in the relatively liberal period after Mao’s death in 1976 and threw themselves into the ensuing drive for economic development.

Li entered top-ranked Peking University in 1978 as part of the first post-Cultural Revolution class, choosing to study law, then a secretive and much-neglected subject. He became active in campus politics at an intense time when many saw democracy as a powerful antidote to Maoist repression but few had a fully formed philosophy.

Li joined the campus debates but apparently stopped short of embracing Western-style democracy. Tellingly, he did not join those forming independent journals or discussion groups, according to Wang, the former classmate, who later was jailed in the 1989 pro-democracy protests at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

“He liked to voice new ideas,” Wang said. “Back then, we were idealists who wanted to develop a new model for governing China.”

Li was also known for his discipline, studying English vocabulary while waiting in the cafeteria line, classmate He Qinhua told the newspaper Southern Weekend earlier this year.

After graduation, Li joined the Communist Youth League, then one of the most dynamic bodies in a Communist Party experimenting with internal reforms. Li served on the secretariat under a new rising star – Hu Jintao.

When Beijing erupted in protests in 1989, Li initially joined meetings to build bridges between the youth league and the student protesters. But after martial law was declared, he quickly stifled any sympathies he might have had for the students.

Less than four years later, Li was elevated to head of the youth league. His term was largely uneventful, coinciding with the league’s growing loss of relevance amid increasing choices for young Chinese.

Retired professor Sun Wenguang, a close observer of leadership issues, said Li’s Peking University law background presents the possibility of a positive, though cautious, stance to new political approaches.

“He’s hidden his political thoughts well, which is completely understandable,” Sun said. “He wouldn’t want to be under too much scrutiny at this stage in his career.”

In 1998, Li was appointed head of highly populated Henan province, where he toed the party line.

He clamped down on the province’s lively underground networks of evangelical Christians. Amid a worsening AIDS crisis, he first attempted a cover-up before shifting gears when Beijing began to confront the problem. Li then was photographed shaking hands with HIV-infected people, sent provincial officials to live in hard-hit villages, and encouraged adoptions of children orphaned by parents who died of AIDS.

In 2004, Li was transferred to Liaoning province, where millions had lost their jobs. He quickly attracted foreign investment from major companies such as BMW and Intel. Working his connections in Beijing, he unlocked billions of dollars in central government funding for highways, airports and housing for 1.2 million people.

In meetings with foreign visitors, Li relentlessly promotes the local economy and recites statistics in great detail.

“He is a brilliant guy – young, very investment driven,” said a German businessman who has met Li frequently but did not want his name used to avoid harming relations with Chinese officials.

On his rise up the party’s ranks, Li has earned a reputation for avoiding mistakes while keeping the economy humming and tamping down unrest. He has studied English and mixes easily with foreign business leaders, increasingly important qualities for a Chinese leader.

Staying below the radar may be more important than ever now, given the extreme delicacy surrounding the succession issue. With the old revolutionaries gone from the political stage, no one, not even Hu, is considered powerful enough to force through their choice of successor.

“Li certainly has a good chance to become Hu’s successor, but he needs to be tested in the next five years,” said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese leadership issues at the Brookings Institute in Washington. “A lot of things can happen.”

AP-ES-10-13-07 1408EDT

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