October 27, 2023

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Li Keqiang, China’s former premier, dies suddenly at 68

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Li Keqiang, China’s former premier under President Xi Jinping, has died aged 68, state media reported on Friday.

The senior Communist party official, who until March was the head of Xi’s cabinet and led economic policy for a decade, suffered a heart attack on Thursday in Shanghai, Xinhua said.

The state-run news agency said “despite all-out rescue efforts”, the former second-ranked official passed away 10 minutes past midnight on Friday.

The sudden death of a senior leader represents a challenging political moment for the party, which analysts said would rush to define Li’s legacy as it battles against an economic slowdown and geopolitical tensions with the west.

Li served as China’s premier and head of the State Council, or cabinet, for a decade until he stepped down during the National People’s Congress in March. He was replaced by Li Qiang, the former Shanghai party secretary.

When he took office in 2013, reformers hoped Li would serve in the mould of Zhu Rongji, the premier under late president Jiang Zemin who instituted some of the country’s boldest economic changes between 1998 and 2003, including a large-scale privatisation programme.

At his first cabinet meeting as premier, Li declared that all ministries must “solidly advance reform”.

Li had also been tipped as a strong candidate to succeed outgoing president Hu Jintao before Xi came to power. As Li came to serve as the business-friendly face of Xi’s increasingly authoritarian government, there was speculation of a rivalry between China’s top two leaders over economic policy. As premier though, Li was seen as far less influential than his predecessors Wen Jiabao and Zhu.

Li also hailed from a different political faction, having risen through the party ranks in the Communist Youth League, an important power centre under former president Hu.

As Xi focused on exerting greater control and emphasising state-owned enterprises, Li tried to champion market forces but struggled to promote his ideas.

“A lawyer by training, Li was considered a moderate voice and advocated for economic reform,” James Zimmerman, a political commentator on China, wrote on X, formerly Twitter. He added that Li was “viewed as a pragmatic leader, and less ideological” than Xi’s closer allies.

Joseph Torigian, an expert on elite Chinese and Soviet politics at Stanford University’s Hoover History Lab, said the death of a senior Chinese political figure is “always an extremely complicated and challenging moment” for the leadership.

“I’m sure that the obituaries will characterise Li Keqiang as someone who was fully onboard with Xi Jinping’s project,” Torigian said. “These are moments where you want the party to come together.”

During Li’s tenure, Beijing’s economic team pursued efforts to deleverage enormous debt burdens built up under China’s vast stimulus programmes after the global financial crisis in 2008.

The policies, which were aimed at reducing systemic economic risks, ultimately sent the property sector, a crucial driver of growth, into a multiyear slump.

Despite occasional attempts to be more assertive, Li was stymied by Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, and was removed from the party’s top ranks in October last year, when Xi officially secured a third term as Communist party general secretary and unveiled a leadership team packed with loyalists.

Li was born in 1955 in Dingyuan county in China’s central Anhui province, where his father was an official. As with many in his generation, Li was sent to the countryside at the age of 19 to perform manual labour during the Cultural Revolution.

In 1977, he won a place at Peking University Law School where he read AV Dicey, an expert on British constitutional law, and helped translate The Due Process of Law by Lord Denning, an influential British judge. After receiving a law degree, Li also earned a PhD in economics from Peking University.

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