Former Chinese premier Li Keqiang, a reform-minded bureaucrat once tipped as the country’s future leader only to be eclipsed by President Xi Jinping, died Friday. He was 68.
Li suffered a heart attack on Thursday and passed away in Shanghai just after midnight, state-run news agency Xinhua said.
China’s ruling Communist Party said in an official obituary that Li’s death was “a significant loss for the party and the country”, describing him as an “outstanding party member, a time-tested and loyal Communist fighter”.
It added that Li “was full of affection for the people and strived to resolve their outstanding difficulties in employment, education, housing, medical care and elderly care, shore up the bottom line of their livelihoods and continuously improve their happiness”.
A career bureaucrat who spoke fluent English, Li voiced support for economic reforms during his time in office.
During his 10-year tenure as premier under Xi, he cultivated an image as a more modern official compared to his stiffer colleagues.
The son of a minor party official in eastern China’s Anhui province, Li was sent to the countryside to work as a labourer during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976.
He went on to study law at Peking University, where classmates say he embraced Western liberalism.
But he became more orthodox after joining the Communist Party in the mid-1980s, rising to become its top official in Henan province, and later in Liaoning in the northeast — tenures marked by both economic growth and a health scandal.
Appointed premier in 2013, his attempts at tackling China’s deep economic challenges were curtailed by the overwhelming authority of Xi, with whom he was once seen as a rival for the country’s leadership.
His tenure saw a shift from the more consensus-based rule associated with former leaders to the concentrated power of Xi.
“People always debated whether (China’s) institutions would… determine the outcomes, as opposed to just raw power,” Victor Shih, an expert on China’s elite politics at the University of California San Diego, told AFP.
“Recent events show that raw power still matters more.”
“It’s very unfortunate that he didn’t have a protege to carry on his policies,” said Wang Jiangyu, a professor at City University of Hong Kong.
– ‘Derailed agenda’ –
Under Li’s watch, China’s economy began to slow from the dizzying heights experienced in the 1990s and 2000s.
When he left office in March, the country was experiencing some of its lowest growth in decades, battered by a Covid-induced slowdown and a crisis in the housing market.
The appointment of Xi ally Li Qiang as his successor was seen as a sign that his reformist agenda had fallen by the wayside as Beijing tightened its grip over the economy.
In his final speech as premier earlier this year, Li struck a bullish tone, saying China’s economy was “staging a steady recovery and demonstrating vast potential and momentum for further growth”.
“He always struck me as very committed to China’s development, intellectually curious, with a highly sophisticated understanding of the Chinese economy,” Bert Hofman, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, told AFP.
“Events derailed some of his agenda in the past 10 years, but his thinking is still very much relevant today.”
Former Peking University schoolmate Guoguang Wu, now a researcher at Stanford, told AFP he did not believe Li “has left a political legacy”.
“History will soon forget him,” he said.
Another former schoolmate was more charitable, saying Li’s life and career were a testament to the success of the reform agenda he espoused during his life.
“Without reform and opening up… he and I still might have been farming in the countryside of Anhui,” lawyer Tao Jingzhou said.
– Humble beginnings –
In the eastern village of Jiuzi in Dingyuan county on Friday afternoon, flowers were laid against the mud and thatch walls of Li’s childhood home — a far cry from the upper echelons of Beijing to which he ascended.
A small group of people gathered, with some laying bouquets of yellow and white chrysanthemums — a Chinese flower of mourning.
One woman told AFP she felt “very sad” about his death.
A visitor said he “felt very sad because Li Keqiang was an amiable premier and was loved by people all over the country”.
Another man said: “He has done a lot of good things for the people, and the country. We people are very grateful to him.”
Social media users took to the popular Weibo platform to share brief messages of condolence, though many comments could not be displayed — a sign that discussion of the topic was being censored.