On Friday morning, it was reported that Li Keqiang, former Premier of China, passed away at 68 years old. The government released a statement stating that Li had died from a sudden heart attack, despite efforts to save him. He had been living in Shanghai since his retirement in October of last year. Despite once being the second-in-command in China, Li’s impact and accomplishments were often overshadowed by Xi Jinping. His death is viewed by many as representing a different direction for China, which is reflected in a leaked directive from CDT urging caution in expressing excessive praise or evaluations.
In The New York Times, Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher discussed the overshadowing of Li and his reputation by Xi as described by them.
Li and his supporters faced setbacks in their attempts to gain power, as Mr. Xi, who holds unprecedented control in China, favored a group of followers, advocated for the continued dominance of state-owned enterprises, and prioritized strict oversight of the economy by the Communist Party, prioritizing security and ideology over economic growth.
Richard McGregor, a senior researcher for East Asia at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, stated via email that Li Keqiang is not truly representative of a past era of reform, as some have suggested. Instead, he symbolizes the current era under Xi Jinping, where supposed reformists like Li have been marginalized and had their influence taken away.
In the last ten years, Mr. Xi has taken control from Mr. Li on various policy matters. He established several Communist Party commissions to handle policy decisions on topics such as national security, the economy, and finance, effectively replacing the government ministries that used to report to Mr. Li as the premier.
Li was born in 1955 in the Anhui province and was sent to work in the countryside after completing high school. He was part of the first group of students to attend higher education after the Cultural Revolution. While at Peking University, he held leadership positions in the Communist Youth League and earned a Ph.D. in economics. Li then served as governor and Party secretary of Henan province, followed by Party secretary of Liaoning province. He eventually rose to the Politburo and its Standing Committee. In 2013, he became premier and served two terms before being replaced at the 20th Party Congress in 2023. According to James Palmer at Foreign Policy, Li was overshadowed and sidelined by Xi during his final years.
In the beginning of 2022, there was a short-lived sense of hope about Li’s influence as he played a larger role in establishing policies during a worsening economic crisis and the unpopularity of COVID-19 lockdowns. It was believed that Likonomics was making a comeback and there were speculations that he may retain his position as premier under Xi after the leadership reshuffle in October. However, these hopes were weak, as Li was often overshadowed by Xi in public appearances.
After the 2022 20th Party Congress, it was evident that the reformers had been completely eliminated. The tuanpai (or Communist Youth League faction) suffered complete annihilation, and Li was removed from his position. In a particularly harsh move, Xi publicly humiliated Hu (Jintao), who had previously been Li’s mentor. As Hu was escorted out by security officials, he took a moment to exchange a few words with Xi before patting Li on the shoulder. [Source]
Li, a loyal member of the Party, was also believed to potentially hold reformist views. According to political commentator James Zimmerman, Li was seen as a moderate and advocated for economic reform, setting him apart from Xi’s supporters. His passing symbolizes the end of an era, according to Victor Shih from the University of California at San Diego, as he represented the hope for institutionalizing the party. Going forward, Li’s death leaves a void in the senior levels of the Chinese Communist Party, with no one stepping up to fill his role as a moderating voice. This could result in even more unchecked power and authority for Mr. Xi. In an article by Reuters’ Laurie Chen and Yew Lun Tian, analysts suggest that Li will be remembered for his potential impact, in contrast to Xi’s current governance.
Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University, believes that Li will be remembered for promoting a more open market and advocating for those in need. However, the most impactful aspect of his legacy will likely be the missed opportunities.
According to Alfred Wu, a faculty member at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, individuals with these characteristics are no longer present in Chinese politics.
According to Wu, Li’s influence as premier was not as significant as his predecessors, Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao. He was often excluded from important decisions, but he also faced limitations under Xi’s leadership, making it difficult for him to make a bigger impact.
According to Adam Ni, a political analyst focused on China, Li was a prime minister who had no control as China moved away from reform and opening.
There were debates among experts about the potential differences in a China led by Li compared to one under Xi. Some, like University of Chicago professor Dali L. Yang, believed that Li would have stepped down after two terms as General Secretary and projected a more favorable global image for China. Others, such as University of Leiden assistant professor Rogier Creemers, argued that China’s economic trajectory would inevitably lead to increased competition with the West, regardless of the leader. American University assistant professor Joseph Torigian suggested that Li, being a product of the Party, would have adhered to its principles rather than representing a distinct political stance from Xi.
In the final analysis, according to Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, Li was a reform-minded individual who was unable to fully implement his agenda. His passing serves as a reminder of what he was unable to accomplish rather than his achievements. As noted by Lily Kuo and Christian Shepherd in The Washington Post, Li did not ultimately challenge Xi when given the opportunity.
According to Wu Guoguang, a scholar at Stanford University who worked with reformist premier Zhao Ziyang in the 1980s, Li Keqiang had the authority to handle Xi Jinping but chose not to do so. However, when Xi Jinping gained more influence, Li Keqiang simply stepped back.
According to Wu, his mindset was similar to many Chinese Communist Party members during Xi Jinping’s rule. They were dissatisfied and disapproved of Xi Jinping, but were unwilling to take any direct action against him or risk offending him.
In the field of economics, Li was well-known for creating the “Li Keqiang Index,” which consisted of factors that he believed to be more accurate in measuring economic growth in China. This was due to the tendency of Chinese officials to inflate GDP figures. Andrew Batson, the China research director for Gavekal Dragonomics, pointed out that this index was often the most memorable aspect of Li’s career, highlighting the lack of noteworthy events in his life. However, Cornell University professor Jeremy Wallace expressed his appreciation for Li’s ability to navigate around data manipulation within his own organization, demonstrating the limitations of authoritarian control. For more information, read CDT’s interview with Wallace from 2022. Despite his ambition and talent, Li could not escape Xi’s authority.