In a sudden and tragic turn of events, China’s former premier, Li Keqiang, passed away at the age of 68 in Shanghai, as reported by Chinese state media. According to China’s Xinhua news agency, Li suffered a heart attack and succumbed to it early on Friday.
The state broadcaster CCTV confirmed, “Comrade Li Keqiang, while resting in Shanghai in recent days, experienced a sudden heart attack on Oct 26 and after all-out efforts to revive him failed, died in Shanghai at ten minutes past midnight on Oct 27.”
Li Keqiang will be remembered for his advocacy for a freer market and his concern for China’s less fortunate citizens. However, his legacy also reflects the political alternative marginalized by the autocratic rise of Xi Jinping.
Li served as the Premier, the second-highest position in China’s political system, for a decade from 2013 until he was replaced by Li Qiang in March.
In his final public appearance at a press conference in March, Li expressed, “No matter how the international winds and clouds change, China will unswervingly expand its opening up. The Yangtze River and the Yellow River will not flow backward.”
The handling of news of Li’s death was noteworthy, with reports of some social media users being blocked from posting footage of his remarks. This could be seen as an attempt to prevent potential expressions of discontent with the current regime, as has occurred during mourning events for former leaders in the past.
On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, Li’s death became the top trending topic. Many users expressed shock and grief, but comments on posts were mostly limited to news and government accounts and were restricted or controlled.
Li Keqiang, popular among Chinese people and officials even after his removal as premier, was believed to be former leader Hu Jintao’s preferred successor as president. However, he was overlooked when the leadership chose Xi Jinping in 2012. Li and Hu belonged to Xi’s rival faction within the Chinese Communist party, but this faction has seen its influence decline in recent years as Xi consolidated his power.
His background as the son of a local official in the impoverished province of Anhui, where he worked as a manual laborer during the Cultural Revolution, and his later transformation into a bureaucrat marked his career. He gained a law degree from Peking University, embracing Western and liberal political theory during his studies. However, he became more orthodox as he entered officialdom in the mid-80s, rising through the ranks.
Li will be remembered internationally for the “Li Keqiang index,” an informal measurement of China’s economic progress, which he referred to during his tenure as party chief in Liaoning. The index was based on indicators such as electricity consumption, rail cargo, and bank lending data.
Li had advocated for economic reform and shown concern for the well-being of the general population. Yet, his ability to effect change was limited as China moved away from reform and opening during his time in office, especially under the firm grip of Xi Jinping.
As we bid farewell to Li Keqiang, he leaves behind a legacy of what might have been—a leader who sought to address China’s economic and social challenges but, in the end, largely adhered to the party’s line.