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Li Keqiang, who served as China’s premier until March this year and was once a competitor of Xi Jinping for the highest leadership position, succumbs to a heart attack in Shanghai on Friday, as reported by state broadcaster CCTV. He was 68 years old.
According to state media in a concise announcement, Li passed away shortly after midnight on Friday despite all rescue efforts being unsuccessful.
Li served as prime minister under Xi for ten years until he was replaced by a loyalist to Xi earlier this year. As prime minister, his responsibilities included overseeing the national government and leading the economy, although he was largely marginalized as Xi consolidated power within himself.
Born in Anhui, one of the least affluent provinces in China, where his father held a local government position, Li was described by classmates and colleagues as a cautious political activist who swiftly climbed the ranks of the Communist Party. When he became Party Secretary of Henan at the age of 47, he became the youngest official to govern a Chinese province.
Li, a technocrat who aimed to reshape China’s economy around its emerging middle class and their growing consumerism, was once viewed as the primary contender against Xi. He rose to prominence through the Communist Youth League faction, which served as the power base for Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao.
Li’s associations with pro-democracy activists during his university years once raised observers’ hopes that he would bring about change within China’s autocratic system. He studied economics at the prestigious Peking University during the era of openness and liberal thinking in the 1980s, which ended with the suppression of pro-democracy protests in Beijing in 1989. Others believed that he would pursue market-oriented economic reforms; he studied under a leading advocate of privatization.
However, this did not materialize. Soon after assuming the position of China’s No. 2 official, Li’s influence rapidly declined. Unlike previous leaders who shared power, such as Hu and his Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, Xi exerted greater control and relied on close aides to assist in managing economic affairs.
Despite his marginalization, Li became a symbol of dissatisfaction with the economy’s shift towards statism as regulators cracked down on private industries. In 2020, during the COVID outbreak, Li stated in a speech that 600 million people in China were earning less than $140 per month, a comment that contradicted the government’s efforts to eradicate poverty. This led to resentment over persistent inequality.
He was perceived as subtly pushing back against the government’s strict zero-Covid policy. Throughout the pandemic, he advocated for a “balance” between fighting the virus and promoting economic growth.
In 2020, amid the outbreak, he called for the revival of the once thriving “hawker economy” of small roadside stalls, which had largely been prohibited, resulting in a tentative resurgence.
As premier, Li’s economic policies came to be known as “Liconomics”. While serving as the Communist Party chief of Liaoning province, an industrial hub in northern China, he sided with officials who favored his own measures based on railway cargo volumes, electricity consumption, and bank loans, as per a State Department memo leaked by WikiLeaks. The measures were rejected.
In 2007, he informed the then-US Ambassador Clark T. Randt that the government-published economic data were “unreliable”, according to the cable.
During a visit to Shenzhen last year to pay homage to Deng Xiaoping, who is considered the architect of China’s market liberalization, he discussed the “earth-shattering changes” brought about by openness to the world and declared that the reforms must continue.
“China’s opening-up will continue to progress. The Yellow River and the Yangtze River will not reverse their flow,” he said.