BEIJING, Oct 27 (Reuters) – Former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang died of a heart attack on Friday, just seven months after he retired after a decade in power during which his reformist star diminished. He was 68 years old.
Li, once seen as a top contender for the Communist Party leadership, has been sidelined in recent years by President Xi Jinping, who has tightened his grip on power and steered the world’s second-largest economy in a more state-controlled direction.
The elitist economist Lee advocated a more open market economy and advocated supply-side reforms in an approach he called “leuconomy” which was never fully implemented.
Ultimately, he had to bow to Xi’s preference for more state control, and the influence of his former power base waned as Xi installed his aides in powerful positions.
“Comrade Li Keqiang, while resting in Shanghai in recent days, suffered a sudden heart attack on October 26, and after comprehensive efforts to revive him failed, he died in Shanghai at 10 minutes past midnight on October 27,” it reported.
An official obituary published by China’s official Xinhua news agency on Friday described his death as a “huge loss to the Party and the nation” and called him an “outstanding leader.”
“We must turn our grief into strength, and learn from his revolutionary spirit, noble personality and beautiful style,” Xinhua said.
The obituary listed his political achievements and mentioned four times that Li carried out his work under the “strong leadership” of Xi.
A wave of sadness and shock prevailed on Chinese social media, as some government websites appeared in black and white in an official sign of mourning. Microblogging platform Weibo has turned its “Like” button into a chrysanthemum-shaped “sadness” icon on its mobile app.
“He’s only 68 years old. He probably hasn’t enjoyed his life yet, right? He’s been busy all the time taking care of important responsibilities for the country,” said a 74-year-old retiree from Shanghai, surnamed Xu. “We are all very sad.”
Li was Premier and Chinese Premier under Xi for ten years until he stepped down from all political posts in March.
In August 2022, he laid a wreath at the statue of Deng Xiaoping – the leader who brought transformative reform to China’s economy – and pledged to Li that “reform and opening-up will not stop. The Yangtze River and the Yellow River will not reverse course.”
Video clips of the speech, which went viral but were later banned from Chinese social media, were widely seen as coded criticism of Xi’s policies.
Lee also sparked debate about poverty and income inequality in 2020 when he said 600 million people in the increasingly wealthy country earned less than $140 a month.
The end of the era
Some Chinese intellectuals and members of the liberal elite expressed shock and dismay on a semi-private WeChat channel at the passing of the beacon of liberal economic reform, with some saying it signaled the end of an era.
“Lee will likely be remembered as a champion of the free market and the have-nots,” said Wayne Tee Song, professor of political science at the Australian National University. “But most of all he will be remembered for what could have been.”
“All these types of people no longer exist in Chinese politics,” said Alfred Wu, an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
Wu said Li was less influential than his immediate predecessors as premier, Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao. “He was sidelined, but what more could he do? It was very difficult for him, given the restrictions he faced under Xi.”
Adam Ni, an independent political analyst in China, described Li as “a prime minister who stood helplessly as China took a sharp turn away from reform and opening-up.”
A glowing profile in state media circulated in 2014 of Lee, praising him as a “quiet, strong person who breaks down walls,” shortly after his death was announced. He stressed his hard work and perseverance in pushing for economic reforms.
Li’s frequent visits to disaster sites and his camaraderie when speaking to ordinary people have also been highlighted in Chinese state media.
Some social media users mentioned a song titled “Sorry It Wasn’t You,” another implicit reference to Xi. The song about the death of former President Jiang Zemin went viral in November last year before it was banned.
The reformist faction diminished
Retired Chinese leaders usually keep a low profile. Li was last seen in public during a private tour in August of the Mogao Grottoes, a tourist attraction in northwest China. Videos on social media showed him in good spirits, climbing the stairs unaided and waving to excited crowds. Reuters was unable to independently verify the footage.
Li was born in eastern China’s Anhui Province, a poor agricultural region where his father, an official, was sent to work in the fields during the Cultural Revolution.
While studying law at the prestigious Peking University, Li became friends with ardent pro-democracy advocates, some of whom became outright challengers to party control.
The confident English speaker was immersed in the intellectual and political ferment that had defined a decade of reform under Deng. That period ended with the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, which were crushed by the army.
After graduation, Li joined the Communist Party Youth League, which was then a reformist ladder to higher positions.
He rose through the Youth League while earning a master’s degree in law and then a doctorate in economics under Professor Li Yining, a well-known advocate of market reforms.
Before entering elite politics in Beijing, he served as regional party chief in Henan, a poor region in central China, and Liaoning Province, which borders North Korea.
Its sponsor was Hu Jintao, a former president who belonged to a political faction loosely centered around the Youth League. After Xi took over as party chief in 2012, he took steps to dismantle the faction.
Lee is survived by his wife, Qing Hong, an English professor, and their daughter.
(Reporting by Lori Chen and Yu Lun Tian – Prepared by Mohammed for the Arabic Bulletin) Additional reporting by Nicoko Chan in Shanghai and Liz Li in Beijing – Prepared by Mohammed for the Arabic Bulletin Editing by William Mallard and Hugh Lawson
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Lori Chen is China correspondent in Reuters’ Beijing bureau, covering politics and general news. Before joining Reuters, she reported on China for six years at AFP and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. She speaks Mandarin fluently.
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