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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People in Washington have been talking all week about the man expected to be the next president of China. Xi Jinping is visiting the United States, and yesterday we heard about his privileged background. This morning, we're going to learn more about the man who is slated to be the new prime minister of China, Li Keqiang. He is the son of a minor party official, and he worked as a farmer for four years before studying law. NPR's Louisa Lim has been talking with those who knew him.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Welcome home, say students jostling to shake Li Keqiang's hand just as he visited his alma mater Peking University last year. He's grinning, visibly delighted.

VICE PREMIER LI KEQIANG: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: I'm extremely happy to come back, he says. Peking University educated me.

KEQIANG: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: And it's this education that marks him stand out from China's past leaders. Li entered Peking University in 1978, when it was a hotbed of student activism. He studied law. He even translated a book on due process by the famous British judge, Lord Denning.

YANG BAIKUI: Due process of law, due process of law.

LIM: Yang Baikui translated it with him. He thinks the Western influence education received by this new generation has had an impact.

BAIKUI: (Through translator) He definitely thought the book had value. My first impression is that he was quite open-minded and tolerant. He was quite a realist, rather pragmatic. He wasn't very idealistic.

LIM: This was a time of intense intellectual and political ferment, with Peking University students holding competitive elections. Li Keqiang didn't stand, but he was president of the Student Federation. So he spent time with the most politically active students, including some who subsequently ended up in jail for their part in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. He even knew this man, Chen Ziming, who was named the Black Hand behind the protests and sentenced to 13 years in jail.

CHEN ZIMING: (Through translator) Then, Li Keqiang was a very idealistic, very ambitious person with wide knowledge. Has 30 years in the system eroded his spirit? I believe what you learn when you're young influences your whole life.

LIM: It's a sign of how little Li gave away, even at that stage that his fellow students don't agree on how idealistic he was. It's also a sign of his political ability, that he could rise so high after being so closely linked with those at the very heart of the Tiananmen protests. Yang Baikui, his co-translator, spent a year in detention. But Yang says he didn't count Li as a friend. In fact, he believes Li Keqiang didn't have any close friends.

BAIKUI: (Through translator) He didn't drink alcohol or go out singing or anything like that, because his aim was the very top. He wanted to be a politician. And politicians in China have no friends, because friends drag them down.

KEQIANG: HKU is a university built for China and the world.

LIM: This is Li Keqiang speaking last year at Hong Kong University. Unlike his predecessors, his English is good. After getting a Ph.D. in economics, he rose through the ranks of the Communist Party's Youth League, a training ground for reformist-leaning officials. Then, in 1998, at 43 years old, the rising star became the youngest governor in China, in Henan province. It's this spell in his career that's led to criticism.

CHEN BINGZHONG: (Through translator) His sense of values runs counter to the code of ethics followed by contemporary society. This kind of person is not suitable to be the leader of a country.

LIM: That's 79-year-old Chen Bingzhong, a Communist Party member and the former head of China's National Institute of Health Education. He's written three open letters detailing why he thinks Li's not fit to be China's next premier. This is related to an outbreak of AIDS in Henan, when the state-run blood banks infected tens of thousands of blood sellers with HIV. Most of the infections happened before Li Keqiang arrived. But Chen says he was complicit in the cover-up.

BINGZHONG: (Through translator) He hid the facts. He attacked the whistle-blowers. He did some work for sufferers, but not nearly enough. And he continued with the cover-up. That was very wrong.

LIM: This clearly did not hold Li Keqiang back. Nowadays, as vice premier, he has a reputation for caring about social equity and closing the wealth gap. He also has an apparent skepticism of communist bureaucracy. A WikiLeak cable describes him telling the then-U.S. ambassador that Chinese economic figures are man-made and for reference only. But despite his early flirtation with student radicals, it's telling that nobody who knows him really knows what Li Keqiang stands for, apart from his ambition to hold power. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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