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October 27, 2023 at 7:40 AM EDT
China’s former Premier Li Keqiang, who gained a reputation as a reformer
but later found himself sidelined by President Xi Jinping, died of a heart
attack just months after stepping down as the nation’s No. 2 official. He was
Li passed away in the early hours of Friday in Shanghai after all rescue
efforts failed, according to a statement posted on the government’s website.
His death sparked a huge outpouring of grief on Friday on China’s tightly
controlled internet, with most comments expressing shock and sadness over
his passing.
“Rest in peace, people’s premier,” one top comment said on microblogging
platform Weibo, where the news was viewed some 1.3 billion times.
Li KeqiangPhotographer: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Bloomberg
A trained economist who once rivaled Xi for the nation’s top job, Li
championed pro-market reforms and extolled the benefits of a more liberal
economic vision while steering the world’s second-largest economy through
a trade war with the US, a property crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.
But his influence steadily declined over his decade as head of government,
with Xi taking over key responsibilities traditionally reserved for the premier
as he amassed the most power in China since Mao Zedong.
Xi’s push to shape economic policy was a harbinger of a bigger shakeup in
the Communist Party that played out last year, when he secured a
precedent-defying third term. Despite being eligible to stay on the seven-
member Politburo Standing Committee, Li was left off China’s most powerful
body and replaced as premier by a Xi ally, Li Qiang.
“Some are suggesting that Li is a symbol of a bygone reform era,” said
Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute in Sydney
who has written several books about Chinese politics, including The Party.
“He is more a symbol of the Xi Jinping era, in which putative reformers like Li
were sidelined and stripped of agency, even though he was ranked number
two in the party hierarchy.”
China’s state media published an official obituary, commending Li’s work as
premier, including promoting economic reform and resolving problems
relating to people’s livelihoods — such as job creation, education and
housing. It also highlighted Li’s work under Xi’s leadership and noted Li’s
continued backing of Xi after stepping down as premier, saying he “firmly
supported” anti-corruption efforts, without further elaborating.
The son of a minor Communist Party official, Li was born in Anhui province in
central China in July 1955. During the Cultural Revolution he was sent to
work in the province’s countryside, spending several years doing manual
labor while becoming his unit’s party branch secretary.
His reputation as a relatively liberal official took hold in the 1980s, when he
translated English works on constitutional law by a British judge. Li later
studied for a doctorate in economics under one of China’s leading advocates
for market reform.
Seen as a protege of former President Hu Jintao, Li was a member of the
Communist Youth League. That put him in a different camp of the ruling
party to Xi, who belongs to an elite class of well-connected revolutionary
Li’s political rise came via challenging stints as party chief in both the central
province of Henan and Liaoning in the northeast. In Henan, he oversaw
strong growth, although his tenure was marred by a blood donation scandal
that infected rural residents with HIV.
In Liaoning, Li used electricity consumption, rail cargo volume and bank
loans as proxies for growth, a method that became one of his trademarks.
The Economist created the Li Keqiang Index to measure the nation’s
economic growth based on his three preferred indicators.
After losing out in 2012 to Xi for the chance to rule the Communist Party, Li
became China’s first premier with an economics doctorate, and went on to
carve out a policy platform based on cutting red tape and taxes on business.
Early in his tenure, he cracked down on extravagant spending to rein in an
economy dependent on investment following a massive government
stimulus in 2008 that he helped design. His policies were dubbed
Likonomics by economists — a phrase that took hold. As premier he also
championed “new style urbanization,” which encouraged city growth to be
linked with the provision of employment and public services.
As Xi moved key economic policy decisions to a series of party committees
led by himself and a trusted economic aide, Li spent much of his time
responding to crises such as natural disasters — tasks that allowed him to
develop a more personal connection with the public.
Li Keqiang, right, with Xi Jinping at the National People’s Congress in Beijing in March.Photographer: Qilai
In 2020, Li set off a nationwide debate on poverty alleviation when he
reminded the public that two-fifths of China’s population earned just 1,000
yuan a month on average. “It’s not even enough to rent a room in a medium-
sized Chinese city,” he said during the annual national parliament meeting in
Last year, when China’s economy ground to a halt due to stringent Covid
controls, which eventually sparked rare nationwide protests, Li repeatedly
urged local officials to better balance economic growth with pandemic
controls. In an emergency meeting with thousands of local officials, Li
warned of dire consequences if they didn’t move decisively to prevent the
economy from sliding further.
But while other economic leaders have continued to influence policy after
stepping down, Li did not seem to hold enduring sway.
“There were rumors he would play some behind the scenes role after leaving
office,” said Josef Gregory Mahoney, a politics and international relations
professor at Shanghai’s East China Normal University. “But that never
seemed to materialize.”
‘Marginalized by Xi’
On Friday, users paid tribute to Li on China’s internet, with many highlighting
his comments on poverty. Others shared his remark that “once China’s door
is opened, it will never be closed again” — a statement that stands in
contrast with the nation’s widening divisions with the US and Europe as Xi’s
power expands.
Li’s moves to push financial market reforms and capital account liberalization
made him an ally to reform-minded technocrats in China, according to Eswar
Prasad, former head of the IMF’s China division who’s now an economics
professor at Cornell University.
“He seemed well attuned to the many challenges and hidden dangers the
economy faced and did his part to keep growth on an even course,” Prasad
said of Li. “His legacy will, however, be limited on account of his having been
marginalized by Xi Jinping.”