Early on Friday morning, former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang passed away at the age of 68. According to a government statement, Li died of a sudden heart attack “after all-out rescue efforts failed.” He was said to be resting in Shanghai following his retirement last October. Though he was once China’s number-two official, Li’s life and legacy was overshadowed by Xi Jinping. His death is seen by many as a symbol of an alternative path for China, giving it a political sensitivity expressed in a leaked directive published by CDT: “pay particular attention to overly effusive comments and assessments.”
Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher from The New York Times described how Li and his reputation were eclipsed by Xi:
[Li’s] efforts had limited success as he and his allies lost much of their influence. Mr. Xi, China’s most dominant leader in decades, instead promoted a circle of loyalists, defended a central role for state-owned enterprises and pushed for tight supervision of the economy by the ruling Communist Party, emphasizing security and ideology over growth.
“Li Keqiang is not really a symbol of a bygone reform era, as some are making out,” Richard McGregor, a senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, wrote in an email hours after the death was announced. “He is really a symbol of the Xi Jinping era, in which putative reformers like Li were sidelined and stripped of agency.”
[…O]ver the past decade, Mr. Xi muscled Mr. Li aside on a broad range of policy issues. Mr. Xi created a series of Communist Party commissions to make policy on issues like national security, the economy and finance, supplanting much of the policymaking role once played by government ministries, which reported to Mr. Li as the premier. [Source]
Li was born in 1955 in Anhui province and sent down to work in the countryside after graduating from high school. He was among the first generation of students to enter higher education after the Cultural Revolution. At Peking University, he held leadership positions in the Communist Youth League, and eventually earned his Ph.D. in economics. Li became governor and then Party secretary of Henan province and later Party secretary of Liaoning province, before rising to the Politburo, and its Standing Committee. He became premier in 2013 and served two terms until he was replaced at the 20th Party Congress in 2023. James Palmer at Foreign Policy described how in Li’s final years he was still overshadowed and sidelined by Xi:
Early 2022 saw a brief resurgence of optimism about Li’s power, as he took a more prominent role in setting policy amid a growing economic crisis and the calamities of unpopular COVID-19 lockdowns. There were pronouncements that Likonomics was back and claims that he might keep his position as premier under Xi following the leadership reshuffle in October. But even at the time, these were thin hopes. In public appearances, Li trailed behind Xi.
After the 20th Party Congress in 2022, it was clear that the destruction of the reformers was complete. The tuanpai [or Communist Youth League faction] was annihilated as a faction, and Li was shuffled out of office. Most cruelly, Li’s former mentor, Hu [Jintao], was publicly humiliated by Xi. Escorted out by security officials, Hu paused to say a few words to Xi—and then patted Li on the shoulder. [Source]
While faithful to the Party, Li was also seen as potentially harboring reformist inclinations. In contrast to Xi, “Li was considered a moderate voice and advocated for economic reform,” and he was “viewed as a pragmatic leader, and less ideological” than Xi’s allies, said political commentator James Zimmerman. Now, Li’s passing marks the end of an era, said Victor Shih from the University of California at San Diego: “It just spells the end of this whole big attempt to institutionalize the party. […] He represented the hope of that institutionalization.” Going forward, “Li’s death means the loss of a prominent moderating voice within the senior levels of the Chinese Communist Party, with no one apparently being able to take over the mantle,” said Ian Chong, non-resident scholar at the Carnegie China think tank, adding, “This probably means even less restraint on Mr Xi’s exercise of power and authority.” In an article from Reuters by Laurie Chen and Yew Lun Tian, analysts argued that Li will be remembered “for what could have been,” a departure from Xi’s governance:
“Li will probably be remembered as an advocate for the freer market and for the have-nots,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at Australian National University. “But most of all, he will be remembered for what could have been.”
Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, said, “All these types of people no longer exist anymore in Chinese politics.”
Li was less influential than his immediate predecessors as premier, Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao, Wu said. “He was sidelined, but what more could he have done? It was very hard for him, with the constraints he faced under Xi.”
Adam Ni, an independent China political analyst, described Li as “a premier who stood powerless as China took a sharp turn away from reform and opening”. [Source]
Some academics and analysts wondered whether and how a China governed by Li would have looked much different from the one that emerged under Xi. Some, such as University of Chicago professor Dali L. Yang, argued that Li would have stepped down after two terms as General Secretary and maintained a more positive global image of China. Others, such as University of Leiden assistant professor Rogier Creemers, argued that the trajectory of China’s economy was destined to bring the country into a more competitive path with the West, regardless of who was in charge. American University assistant professor Joseph Torigian argued: “Li, a typical product of the Party, was careful to toe the line, no matter what he thought personally,” and therefore he may not have represented a separate political line from Xi.
In the end, “[Li] was a reformist that wasn’t able to pursue his reform agenda [and] his death reminds people of what he wasn’t able to achieve rather than what he was able to achieve,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center. As Lily Kuo and Christian Shepherd highlighted in The Washington Post, Li ultimately did not appear to confront Xi when he had the chance:
“Li Keqiang had power to deal with Xi Jinping, but he didn’t use it. When Xi Jinping became strong, he just retreated,” said Wu Guoguang, a scholar at Stanford University, who worked with reformist premier Zhao Ziyang in the 1980s.
“His mentality seemed to be like so many Chinese Communist Party cadres under Xi Jinping’s leadership. They are discontent, they don’t like Xi Jinping, but they didn’t want to do anything to directly oppose, challenge or even offend Xi Jinping,” Wu said. [Source]
In the economic realm—one of his main portfolios—Li was famous for inspiring the “Li Keqiang Index,” a list of factors he considered more reliable for tracking economic growth in China, given officials’ tendency to exaggerate GDP figures. Andrew Batson, the China research director for Gavekal Dragonomics, even noted that this often being the most memorable aspect of Li is a testament to how his life was so devoid of incident. On this note, however, Cornell University professor Jeremy Wallace expressed his gratitude: “the beguiling idea of a leader smiling about having to work around data manipulation inside his own organization and everyone knowing that such work-arounds were happening revealed a lot about the nature and limits of authoritarian politics and control.” (Read more on the topic in CDT’s interview with Wallace from 2022. Ambitious and talented as he was, even Li could not escape Xi’s control.