By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - Li Keqiang, China's likely next premier, once huddled beside Yang Baikui in a Beijing university dorm, translating a book by an English judge, little separating the future Communist Party leader from his classmate who would be jailed as a subversive.
Over three decades ago, Vice Premier Li and Yang entered prestigious Peking University, both members of the storied "class of '77" who passed the first higher education entrance exams held after Mao Zedong's convulsive Cultural Revolution.
More than any other Chinese party leader until now, Li was immersed in the intellectual and political ferment of the following decade of reform under Deng Xiaoping, which ended in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that were crushed by troops.
As a law student at Peking University, Li befriended ardent pro-democracy advocates, some of whom later became outright challengers to party control. His friends included activists who went into exile after the June 1989 crackdown.
Now Li, 56, is preparing to take the reins of government, and Yang and other sometime friends wonder how those heady times will shape his role running a one-party state that has increasingly bristled at calls for political relaxation.
"When we were working on translating the book and exchanging ideas, I thought his views were very liberal," Yang recalled of Li, who as an English speaker is a rarity among senior Chinese leaders.
"His leanings were clearly pro-Western ideas. He certainly wasn't conservative," said Yang, now a bald 61-year-old translator in Beijing, in a recent interview. "When he opened his mouth, it wasn't Mao slogans."
"I personally think his past certainly left an impact, but he's also been an official for over two decades, and so that's also a factor," said Yang, who was jailed for nearly a year on "counter-revolutionary" charges after helping write petitions and offer advice in the 1989 demonstrations.
Li has visited North and South Korea this week in Beijing's latest effort to lift his profile. The secretive Communist Party will wait until a congress in late 2012 to confirm who will succeed President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, and the new premier will then be formally anointed by parliament in early 2013.
The Chinese translation that Li, Yang and a fellow student, Liu Yongan, labored over -- "The Due Process Law" by Lord Alfred Denning -- was recently reissued, a perhaps inadvertent reminder of the past of the man likely to succeed Premier Wen.
Li himself has been nearly silent about his university years. But his experiences could mark him out as more politically pragmatic than present leaders, including his patron, President Hu, said classmates and acquaintances of Li.
"Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were members of a red generation that had no opportunity to learn English or immerse themselves in new ideas or Western thought," said Chen Ziming, back then a student-activist at another school who campaigned with Li's classmates and got to know him.
"But the generation of Li Keqiang is different, and because of his law specialty and the length of his education, he was much more exposed to the new influences than, say, Xi Jinping," said Chen, referring to President Hu's likely successor.
"We don't know for sure what this difference means, but it's there, waiting to manifest itself in the future, if the opportunity arises," said Chen, who was jailed after the 1989 crackdown and lives in Beijing, writing on politics.
Xi spent years in countryside during the Cultural Revolution, but got into university earlier than Li. Despite that, Xi too has attracted talk that he could be more pragmatic.
The man nearly certain to be China's next premier once spent hours every day muttering the unfamiliar English words that promised to unlock a world of previously forbidden knowledge.
Li was among the 273,000 examinees to win university and college places in the intensely competitive entrance test of 1977, when reformers began to revive conventional schooling upended by Mao's upheavals.
Li arrived at Peking University in early 1978 from Anhui province in eastern China, dirt-poor farming country where his father was an official. He chose law, a discipline silenced for years as a reactionary pursuit and in the late 1970s still steeped in Soviet-inspired doctrines.
"Keqiang was tireless in studying English to the point that young people nowadays would find hard to imagine," He Qinhua, one of Li's 82 law classmates in the same year wrote in a memoir. "He recited it while walking, while queued up at the canteen, while on the bus and waiting for the bus."
Li's thirst for foreign ideas brought him close to Gong Xiangrui, one of the few Chinese law professors schooled in the West to survive Mao's purges. Gong studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the 1930s, and was a living bridge to long-dormant liberal ideas that spread through student circles in the early 1980s.
The old professor took a shining to the skinny, earnest Li, who become one of several disciples who helped prepare a textbook and translate books, including Lord Denning's, according to mentions in Gong's recently published posthumous memoirs and in his 1985 textbook on Western constitutional law.
In a brief memoir of his time at Peking University, Li paid tribute to Gong and recalled the heady atmosphere of the time.
"I was a student at Peking University for close to a decade, while a so-called 'knowledge explosion' was rapidly expanding," Li wrote in an essay published in a 2008 book.
"I was searching for not just knowledge, but also to mold a temperament, to cultivate a scholarly outlook."
At the time, Deng Xiaoping was shepherding China toward market reforms, but many students and a few officials hankered for bolder political changes that alarmed party conservatives.
The ideas about rights, rule of law and popular representation that Li's cohort encountered in books, lectures and study groups percolated into those broader debates.
"Gong Xiangrui advocated a separation of powers and a multi-party system, and some of his ideas remain taboo even today," said Jiang Ming'an, a classmate of Li's, in a report published by China's Southern Weekend newspaper in 2007.
"Constitutional government is the road to rule of law, and rule of law is the first step toward democracy," Gong said in a lecture in San Francisco in 1996, shortly before his death.
"The Chinese people should fully achieve constitutional democracy in the coming century," he said.
Some of Li's classmates remember that he too was also carried along by that idealism of the time.
"The Li Keqiang that I knew in the past was quite bold. He was high-minded, bold and idealistic," said Wang Juntao, who has been in exile since 1994 and is now co-chairman of the China Democratic Party, which campaigns for change in his homeland.
Wang was a physics student at Peking University who ran a study group with Li. He was jailed as a "black hand" for his prominence in supporting the 1989 student protests.
"Among all the younger leaders, Li Keqiang is the only one who's lived and debated alongside these liberals," Wang said by telephone from New Jersey.
"He understands us, he's argued with us."
In late 1980, those debates spilled out of crowded classrooms and dormitory rooms, when officials allowed students at Peking University and other schools to compete in competitive elections for places on local assemblies.
Months earlier Deng Xiaoping had signaled he might tolerate experiments in political reform. Peking University drew national attention as it tested how far those experiments might go.
More than two dozen students put themselves forward, including Wang Juntao, Yang Baikui and other friends of Li, promoting bold calls for democratic reform at meetings attracting hundreds of students, witnesses have said in memoirs.
Back then, the distinction between political "insiders" and "outsiders" -- those who acted under party patronage and those who acted on their own accord -- was more fluid and blurred.
Wang Juntao nominated Li to seek election as head of a student committee to oversee the larger student council, a position he won, Wang recalled.
But Li was away studying off-campus during the 1980 elections or kept aloof from them, according to varied memories of his friends. Yang Baikui -- the fellow translator -- and the student-activist Chen Ziming both said Li backed a more moderate candidate, Zhang Wei, who said economic reform was the priority.
"Their view wasn't against political reform, but it was that economic reform was more urgent," said Chen. "Li Keqiang was a bit more conservative in that way, but he also wanted reform."
Alarmed by the passions of the student elections, Deng drew back from political relaxation. As the 1980s progressed, Deng curbed demands for dramatic political reform, bringing the more ardent members of Li's cohort into growing conflict with party conservatives, a confrontation that culminated in 1989.
But while classmates headed off to policy research, independent activism and even outright dissent, Li struck a more cautious course, abandoning ideas of study abroad and climbing the ladder of the Communist Party's Youth League, then a reformist-tinged ladder to higher office.
He rose in the Youth League while completing a master's degree in law at Peking University and then an economics doctorate there under Professor Li Yining, a well-known advocate of market reforms.
In 1998, he was sent to Henan province, a poor and restless belt of rural central China, rising to become Party secretary for two years. In late 2004, he was made party chief of Liaoning, a rustbelt province striving to attract investment and reinvent itself as a modern industrial heartland.
Rumors have occasionally spread that Li's past contacts with now-exiled dissidents, including Wang Juntao, derailed his prospects for becoming China's president and party chief, a more powerful post than premier, said Wang.
But Li's prospects of becoming next premier appear increasingly assured, a point bolstered by recent high-profile trips abroad and major policy speeches. His diplomatic forays also show he has kept his English.
"The fact that Li Keqiang has been able to constantly rise in the official ranks, and to win the liking of key people, shows that he's undergone big changes," said Wang.
Li's patron, President Hu, began his tenure as leader with promises of respecting the law and constitution. But latterly his government has overseen a crackdown on dissent that resorted to widespread extra-judicial detentions.
Yang, the former classmate, said he had not had any contact with Li since the 1980s, and could only speculate at how deep a mark Li's university years had left.
"I think it could make him more open and inclusive, more democratic, if the conditions allow. His ideas of rule of law might go deeper," said Yang. "But he couldn't show any of that now. That would be too dangerous."
(Editing by Brian Rhoads and Raju Gopalakrishnan)