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Personality Spotlight;NEWLN:Li Xiannian: China's new president

Li Xiannian, China's new president, has distinguished himself in the Chinese Communist movement since its beginning, first as a guerrilla commander in the 1930s, then an 'economic wizard' in the 1950s.

He has always been a tough political survivor and team player. But his new post is more a consolation than an honor.

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Li, 78, was China's first vice premier in 1954 and was widely regarded as a likely successor to the late Premier Chou En-lai, who died in 1976. But the Chinese leadership snubbed Li, passing over him twice since Chou's death.

With China's emphasis on younger leadership, Li had virtually no hope of becoming premier. So he has had to settle for the ceremonial presidency, an office re-established after it was abolished in 1968 during the cultural revolution.

Illness forced Li to drop from sight for several months last year. He appears to have recovered and a propaganda campaign in recent months has boosted Li's colorless image.

As the fifth-ranking person in the Communist Party, Li brings to his new role excellent political connections and extensive ties in the bureaucracy.

Li is also familiar with foreign affairs. He has traveled to the Soviet Union and many Third World nations and hosted several state leaders, including President Richard Nixon during his historic 1972 visit to China that opened Sino-American relations.

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During the 1950s, Li was named vice premier and member of the party Politburo, the most powerful group in China. It was at that time he began a long term as the minister of finance under the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung -- succeeding Deng Xiaping, China's current paramount leader.

Eventually Li became known as the 'economic wizard of China.'

In his new post, he is regarded as a compromise between the reform-minded Deng faction and leftists.

Although he questioned Mao's hasty economic policies during the 1950s, he remained loyal to him.

That loyalty never wavered, even when he came under attack by leftists during the early stages of the 1966-76 cultural revolution. Chou intervened and Li escaped persecution, unlike many of China's present leaders.

After Mao's death in 1976 Li was appointed vice chairman of the State Financial and Economic Commission.

He is said to have frowned on some of Deng's liberal policies in recent years, but the differences are not considered a major issue. Li has demonstrated his usual teamwork in cooperating with Deng and his supporters.

Li was born in 1905 into a poor peasant family in central China's Hubei Province. As a youth he was a carpenter's apprentice.

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He joined the communist movement in 1927 after a year with the Nationalist Chinese. His guerrilla leadership rapidly gained attention in Hubei Province, where he became chairman of a guerrilla base second only to the one led by Mao.

Li participated in the communist army's epic 1933-35 Long March to escape Nationalist forces, serving as a political theoretician and army captain. He returned to Hubei in 1939.

Beginning with only a few rifles and a handful of friends, Li created an army of 60,000 by 1941. Three years later he was named regional commander of central China and in 1945, Li first appeared on the elite Communist Party Central Committee.

Before transferring to Peking in 1954, Li was mayor of Wuhan, the Hubei capital.

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