China is in mourning as former Premier Li Keqiang passed away unexpectedly at the age of 68 in Shanghai, as reported by Chinese state media. Li suffered a heart attack and was unable to be revived, according to China’s Xinhua news agency, leaving the nation in shock and sadness.
The state broadcaster CCTV confirmed, “Comrade Li Keqiang, while resting in Shanghai in recent days, experienced a sudden heart attack on Oct 26 and, despite all-out efforts to save him, passed away in Shanghai at ten minutes past midnight on Oct 27.”
Li Keqiang will be remembered as a champion of economic liberalization and a compassionate advocate for China’s disadvantaged citizens. He also symbolizes the alternative political voice that has receded in the face of Xi Jinping’s authoritarian ascendancy.
Li served as Premier, the second-highest position in China’s political hierarchy, for a decade, from 2013 until his replacement by Li Qiang in March.
In his final public appearance at a press conference in March, Li remarked, “No matter how the international winds and clouds change, China will unswervingly expand its opening up. The Yangtze River and the Yellow River will not flow backward.”
The news of Li’s demise was handled carefully by the authorities, with some social media users reporting restrictions on posting footage of his statements. Such measures, as seen in the past, are meant to deter expressions of discontent with the current regime during the mourning period for former leaders.
On Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, the passing of Li Keqiang became the top trending topic. Many users expressed sorrow and grief, although comments on posts were primarily restricted to official news and government accounts, with limited public engagement.
Li Keqiang remained a popular figure among both the Chinese populace and officials, even after his departure as premier. He was initially considered a successor to former leader Hu Jintao as President but was ultimately bypassed when Xi Jinping assumed leadership in 2012. Li and Hu belonged to a rival faction within the Chinese Communist Party, but this faction has faced a decline in influence as Xi consolidated power.
Li’s background as the son of a local official in the impoverished province of Anhui, where he endured manual labor during the Cultural Revolution, is a testament to his journey. He later earned a law degree from Peking University, where he absorbed Western and liberal political theories. However, his tenure in officialdom from the mid-80s onwards saw him adopt more orthodox views as he advanced through the ranks.
Internationally, Li Keqiang is known for the “Li Keqiang index,” an informal measure of China’s economic progress. He referenced this index during his term as party chief in Liaoning, using indicators such as electricity consumption, rail cargo, and bank lending data.
Li was a proponent of economic reform and exhibited a deep concern for the well-being of ordinary Chinese citizens. Yet, his capacity to effect transformative change waned as China shifted away from reform and opening during his time in office, especially under Xi Jinping’s increasingly centralized authority.
As the nation pays its respects to Li Keqiang, his legacy embodies both a commitment to addressing China’s socio-economic challenges and a recognition of what could have been—a leader whose influence was constrained as China navigated its complex path.