People who have interacted with Li say they found him practical-minded, an effective bureaucratic operator and supportive of the private sector.
Li was known for pushing greater economic integration of the Yangtze River Delta region as well as overseeing an expansion of Shanghai’s free trade zone that now houses US automaker Tesla’s China factory, as well as a slew of semiconductor and advanced manufacturing firms.
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.
Zhou Dewen, who represented small and mid-sized enterprises in Wenzhou said Li came across as open-minded and willing to listen.
“He took a liberal approach of granting private companies default access to enter the market, except when explicitly banned by law, rather than the traditional approach of keeping private companies out by default,” said Zhou.
Still, several observers said there are limits to what Li will be able to do, since Xi has steadily tightened Communist Party control.
“Li can make some repairs here and there, but he won’t tear down the wall and build something new,” said Chen Daoyin, former associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, and now a commentator based in Chile.
Li is also the first premier in three decades to have no previous central government nor west China experience.
His predecessors – Zhu Rongji, Wen Jiabao and Li Keqiang – spent five years as executive vice-premier before being elevated to the top economic job.