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China's 'fifth generation' of leaders reflects nation's shifts

October 23, 2007|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

Wang Juntao, a former classmate and longtime political activist twice jailed by Beijing for his role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square student uprising, recalls Li as sharp and someone who enjoyed discussing political issues and new ideas.

"At least in the early 1980s, he was still very open," said Wang, chairman of the Chinese Constitutionalist Assn. in Alhambra. "He wasn't so eager to argue so much, but he would listen."

Li's big break came in 1982 when he joined the Communist Youth League and caught the eye of then-head Hu Jintao. Both came from Anhui and shared an ability to avoid making enemies in treacherous party ranks.

Over the last two decades, Hu has helped his protege rise, a relationship that earned Li the description "Hu's younger clone."

Li also developed something of a reputation for attracting bad luck. Two months after he became governor of Henan in 1989, a string of fires at a furniture factory, movie theater and dance club killed 399 people.

After Li was transferred to Hebei province, the area saw AIDS, social unrest and coal mine disasters that threatened to derail his career, prompting Hu to engineer Li's transfer in 2004 to Liaoning province. After he arrived there, however, the H5N1 bird flu virus broke out.

"These disasters were obviously out of Li's control and weren't directly attributed to his leadership," said the China Leadership Monitor, an online quarterly magazine published by Stanford University. "However, the mere fact that disaster seemed to follow him did not bode well for his public image."

Yin Lijin in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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