Li Keqiang’s death at the age of 68 on Friday morning (27 October) was so sudden and unexpected that it caught China’s usually unflappable state media outlets by surprise. The former Chinese premier, who stepped down in March after a decade in office, died from a heart attack in Shanghai shortly after midnight, the official Xinhua news agency reported in a short statement. No obituary had been prepared. When it finally appeared later in the day, Li was described as a hard-working official who implemented the government’s economic policies and demonstrated unfailing loyalty to Xi Jinping. But that is not how everyone will remember him.
In one sense, Li’s demise makes little difference to Chinese politics. While he was once seen as a future leader of China, Xi was chosen instead to succeed Hu Jintao in 2012, with Li becoming the second-most powerful official. But he was steadily sidelined during his final five years as premier, as Xi cemented his grip on the party and elevated his loyalists to senior roles. By the time he left public office earlier this year, Li was seen as a largely irrelevant figure and a “defeated person” as one former associate described him.
Yet Li’s death also comes at a difficult moment for Xi. In recent months, successive senior officials have disappeared, beginning with his foreign minister Qin Gang, who vanished from public view in June, and his defence minister Li Shangfu, who was last seen in late August. Both men have since been sacked; Qin reportedly after engaging in an extramarital affair while he was ambassador to the US, and Li over an alleged corruption scandal. Around the same time, two top generals were dismissed from the army’s Rocket Force, which is responsible for the country’s land-based nuclear missiles, as part of an ongoing corruption investigation. With China’s economy stagnating, and the government struggling to contain a mounting crisis in the property sector, it is hardly an auspicious start to Xi’s second decade in power.
Li Keqiang was not a liberal. The son of a local party official, who rose to power through the ranks of the Communist Party’s Youth League, he became the country’s youngest governor when he was posted to Henan province in 1998 at the age of 43. There, he was accused of helping to cover up a local tragedy after tens of thousands of poor farmers who had sold their blood to state-run blood banks became infected with HIV. He was also directly linked to the policies that led to the subjugation of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, which has been designated as genocide by the US State Department and the UK parliament, by leaked documents known as the Xinjiang Papers that were uncovered by researchers in 2021.
Yet he will also be remembered by some as a lost voice for an alternative vision of China – a future still dominated by the Communist Party, but with more flexibility for private businesses and a return to the emphasis on “reform and opening” advocated by Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader during the Eighties. As a law student at the prestigious Peking University in the late Seventies, as part of the first generation to be admitted after the ravages of Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution”, Li described himself as being part of the “knowledge explosion” of the early post-Mao years. He learned English and considered studying abroad, helping to translate The Due Process of Law (1980) by Tom Denning, a British judge, into Chinese. He completed a PhD in economics and mixed with some of the students who went on to lead the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, though he did not take part in the demonstrations himself.
When he took office as China’s premier in 2013, he promised a “painful” reordering of the state’s lumbering bureaucracy. “Reforming is about curbing government power,” he said in a televised speech, vowing a “self-imposed revolution that will require real sacrifice”. Instead, Xi led China in the opposite direction, marginalising Li and reasserting the central government’s control.
The danger now for Xi is that people will use the mourning of Li as a means of implicitly criticising his own rule – as happened after the death of the reform-minded leader Hu Yaobang in April 1989, which precipitated the initial student protests in Tiananmen Square that spring. Li was no Hu, but the Chinese authorities will still be watching carefully for any signs of trouble. Already, in the hours after Li’s death, China’s censors have reportedly been erasing videos posted on social media of the song, “A Pity It Wasn’t You”, which were presumably seen as a veiled reference to Xi. Li’s history is already being rewritten and we should expect him to be eulogised in the coming days as a devoted follower of Xi, whatever the reality.