BEIJING: China’s former premier Li Keqiang died of a heart attack on Friday, just 10 months after retiring after a decade in office during which his reformist star waned. He was 68 years old.
Li, once seen as a contender for the Communist Party’s top leadership, had been sidelined in recent years.
The typical economist supported a more open market economy, advocating supply-side reforms in an approach called “leconomics”, which was never fully implemented.
State broadcaster CCTV reported, “Comrade Li Keqiang, who had been resting in Shanghai in recent days, suffered a sudden heart attack on October 26 and, after all efforts to revive him failed, was died at ten minutes to midnight on October 27 in Shanghai. He died in.”
Condolences and shock flooded Chinese social media, with some government websites turning black and white in an official sign of mourning. The Weibo microblogging platform changed its “Like” button to a “condolence” icon in the shape of a chrysanthemum.
Li was China’s premier and cabinet chief under Xi for a decade until he stepped down from all political posts in March.
Laying a wreath in August 2022 at the statue of Deng Xiaoping, the leader who oversaw transformational reforms in China’s economy, Li vowed: “Reform and opening up will not stop. The Yangtze and the Yellow River will not reverse course.”
Video clips of the speech, which went viral but were later censored from Chinese social media, were widely seen as coded criticism of Xi’s policies.
the end of an era
Lee sparked debate over poverty and income inequality in 2020, saying 600 million people in the increasingly rich country earn less than $140 a month.
Some Chinese intellectuals and members of the liberal elite expressed surprise and disappointment on a semi-private WeChat channel at the demise of an icon of China’s liberal economic reform, with some saying it signaled the end of an era.
“Lee will probably be remembered as an advocate of the free market and the underprivileged,” said Wen-Tee Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University. “But most of all, he will be remembered for what could have been.”
“All these kinds of people no longer exist in Chinese politics,” said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
Li was less influential than his predecessors, premiers Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao, Wu said. “He was sidelined, but what else could he do? It was very difficult given the obstacles he faced under Xi.”
Adam Ni, an independent political analyst of China, described Li as “a prime minister who stood powerless as China took a sharp turn from reform and opening-up”.
A glowing 2014 state media profile of Lee, praising him as a “cool and tough wall breaker”, went viral soon after his death was announced. It emphasized his hard work and perseverance in pursuing economic reforms.
Li’s frequent visits to disaster sites and his spontaneous friendliness when speaking to ordinary people were also highlighted on Chinese state media.
Some social media users noted a song titled “Sorry It Wasn’t You” as a veiled reference to Xi. The song went viral around the death of former President Jiang Zemin in November last year, before being censored.
The reformist group weakened
Retired Chinese leaders generally keep a low profile. Li was last seen in public in August during a private tour of the Mogao Grottoes, a tourist attraction in northwest China. Social media videos show him in good mood, climbing the stairs without assistance and waving to the cheering crowd. Reuters could not independently verify the footage.
Li was born in Anhui province in eastern China, a poor agricultural region where his father was an official and where he was sent to toil in the fields during the Cultural Revolution.
While studying law at the prestigious Peking University, Li befriended passionate pro-democracy advocates, some of whom became outright challengers to Party control.
The confident English speaker was immersed in the intellectual and political excitement of the decade of reform under Deng. That period ended in 1989 with the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests which were crushed by the military.
After graduation, Li joined the Communist Party’s Youth League, then the reformist ideology’s ladder to higher office.
He joined the Youth League while completing a master’s degree in law and then a doctorate in economics under Professor Li Ying, a well-known advocate of market reforms.
Li’s political experience as a provincial leader in Henan, a poor and restive rural area in central China, was marred by allegations of his handling of the AIDS scandal. He also served as party chief of Liaoning, a rust-ravaged province that is attempting to attract investment and re-establish itself as a modern industrial heartland.
His mentor was Hu Jintao, a former president of a political faction based on the Youth League. Xi took steps to break up the faction after taking over as party chief in 2012.
Lee is survived by his wife, Cheng Hong, an English professor, and their daughter.