BEIJING: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s brother stepped down on Wednesday as deputy head of a powerful tobacco monopoly, removing a potential conflict of interest as the world’s largest tobacco user battles a major health crisis.
Li Keming, a vice director at the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, has “been removed” from his position, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security said in a statement on its website, listing several other officials who were also stepping down.
The tobacco monopoly wields extraordinary power because it provides an estimated 7-10 percent of government revenues – as much as 816 billion yuan ($130.72 billion) in 2013.
Li Keming is the younger brother of Li Keqiang and had been in the post at the monopoly since 2003. The family lives of top leaders are generally a forbidden subject for public discussion in China.
His position had become a target for accusations from anti smoking activists who suggested the government was too cozy with the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, which controls 98 percent of China’s vast cigarette market.
There is, however, no indication that the government is prepared to weaken the tobacco monopoly.
Li had been appointed to a new post as chairman of a supervisory committee focused on large state owned enterprises, the ministry said, without elaborating.
The tobacco monopoly drew fire from anti-smoking activists last year when its intense lobbying resulted in the weakening of legislation that aimed for a total ban on tobacco advertising, sources told Reuters.
Smoking is a major health crisis for China, where more than 300 million people have made cigarettes part of the social fabric, and millions more are exposed to second-hand smoke.
Last year, a health official said China was considering raising cigarette prices and taxes.
The State Council, China’s cabinet, has issued a draft regulation to ban indoor smoking, limit outdoor smoking and end tobacco advertising.
The director of the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration has taken aim at anti-smoking efforts, saying they should not take an “absolutist” or “expansionist” direction because the habit had hundreds of years of history behind it.