BEIJING, Oct 27 (Reuters) – Former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang died of a heart attack on Friday, 10 months after retiring from a decade in office, his star as a reformer fading. He is 68 years old.
Li, once seen as a contender for the leadership of the Communist Party, 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 statist direction.
The elite economist still advocated an open market economy, advocating supply-side reforms in an approach called “ligonomics”, which was never fully implemented.
Ultimately, he had to yield to Xi’s desire for more state control, and his former power base’s influence waned as Xi installed his own cronies in powerful positions.
“Comrade Li Keqiang, who had been resting in Shanghai in recent days, suddenly suffered a heart attack on October 26 and died in Shanghai at ten minutes to midnight on October 27 after all efforts to revive him failed,” state broadcaster CCTV said. reported.
Chinese social media experienced an outpouring of grief and shock, with some government websites turning black and white as the official symbol of mourning. Microblogging platform Weibo changed its “Like” button to a chrysanthemum-shaped “mourning” icon.
Li served as premier and head of China’s cabinet under Xi for a decade until stepping down from all political posts in March.
In August 2022, laying a wreath at the statue of Deng Xiaoping, the leader who brought transformational reform to China’s economy, Li vowed: “Reform and opening up will not stop. The Yangtze and Yellow rivers will not change course.”
Video clips of the speech that went viral and were later censored from Chinese social media were widely seen as a coded criticism of Xi’s policies.
End of an era
Li raised the debate about poverty and income inequality in 2020, saying that 600 million people in the increasingly wealthy country earn less than $140 a month.
Some Chinese intellectuals and members of the liberal elite expressed shock and dismay on a semi-private WeChat channel at the passing of a beacon of China’s liberal economic reform, which some said signaled the end of an era.
“Li will probably be remembered as an advocate for the free market and the have-nots,” said Australian National University political scientist Wen-Di Chung. “But above all, he will be remembered for what he could have been.”
“These kinds of people are no longer in Chinese politics,” said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
Wu said Li was less influential than his immediate predecessors Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao. “He was sidelined, but what else could he have done? It was very difficult for him, the obstacles he faced under Xi.”
Adam Ni, an independent China political analyst, described Li as “an impotent prime minister as China takes a sharp turn away from reform and opening.”
A glowing 2014 state media profile of Li, praising him as a “quiet and tough wall-breaker,” went viral shortly after his death was announced. It emphasized his hard work and determination in pushing for economic reforms.
Li’s frequent visits to disaster sites and his easy camaraderie when speaking to ordinary people have been highlighted in Chinese state media.
Some social media users noted the song’s “Sorry It’s Not You” was 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 Reformation Division has declined
Retired Chinese leaders generally keep a low profile. Li was last seen in public during an August private tour of the Mogao Grottoes, a tourist destination in northwest China. Social media videos showed him in good spirits, walking unaided up the stairs 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 area where his father was an official and sent to work in the fields during the Cultural Revolution.
While studying law at the prestigious Peking University, Li befriended radical pro-democracy advocates, some of whom would become outright challenges to party control.
A confident English speaker immersed in the intellectual and political excitement of the decade of reform under Deng. That period was the 1989 military crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.
After graduating, Li joined the Communist Party’s Youth League and later climbed the reformers’ ladder to higher office.
He rose through the youth league while completing a master’s degree in law, and later earned a PhD in economics under Professor Li Yining, a well-known advocate of market reforms.
Li’s political experience as a provincial leader in central China’s impoverished and restive rural Henan was marred by accusations of repression after the AIDS scandal. He also served as the party chairman of Liaoning, a rusting province striving to attract investment and rebuild itself as a modern industrial hub.
His patron is Hu Jintao, a former president with a loose political faction around the Youth League. After Ji took over as party leader in 2012, he took steps to break the faction.
Li is survived by his wife Cheng Hong, an English professor, and their daughter.
Larry Chen and Yu Lun Tian report; Additional reporting by Shanghai Newsroom; Editing: William Mallard
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