By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - Where other top Chinese leaders can only stand around and look awkward in the presence of English-speaking dignitaries, premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang stands out for his casual and disarming command of the language.
Li's English skills say more about the man who will run the world's second-largest economy than just an ability to schmooze U.S. CEOs and European prime ministers - they were learned as a part of a surprisingly liberal university education.
Over three decades ago, Vice Premier Li entered prestigious Peking University, a member of the storied "class of '77" who passed the first higher education entrance exams held after Mao Zedong's convulsive Cultural Revolution, which had effectively put university education on hold.
More than any other Chinese party leader until now, Li, 57, 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 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.
He was caught up in the fervor of political and economic reform, helping translate "The Due Process of Law" by Lord Denning, the famed English jurist, into Chinese.
Li arrived at university in early 1978 from Anhui province in eastern China, dirt-poor farming country where his father was an official and where he was sent to toil in the fields during the Cultural Revolution.
He chose law, a discipline silenced for years as a reactionary pursuit and in the late 1970s still steeped in Soviet-inspired doctrines.
In a brief memoir of his time at university, Li paid tribute to Gong Xiangrui, one of the few Chinese law professors schooled in the West to survive Mao's purges, 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 mould a temperament, to cultivate a scholarly outlook."
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 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 and then an economics doctorate 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.
He was named to the powerful nine-member party Standing Committee in 2007.
Li's patron, President Hu Jintao, began his tenure as leader with promises of respecting the law and constitution. But his government has since overseen a crackdown on dissent that resorted to widespread extra-judicial detentions.
Today, Li appears more at ease in small groups than in public. Businessmen and academics say they have been impressed with his diligent studies of policy.
After nearly a decade in power, Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao are due to retire from their party posts at the party congress which opens on Thursday and from the presidency and premiership in 2013.
Li's ascent will mark an extraordinary rise for a man who as a youth worked on a commune in Anhui's Fengyang County - notoriously poor even for Mao's time and one of the first places to quietly revive private bonuses in farming in the late 1970s. By the time he left, Li was a Communist Party member and secretary of his production brigade.
In spite of his liberal past, Li's elevation is unlikely to bring much change on the political front, where reforms would require more unified support for any serious change.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)