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Former Chinese premier and onetime Xi rival Li Keqiang dies at 68

By Lily Kuo and Christian Shepherd Washington Post

Li Keqiang, who was China’s premier until March and was once a rival to Xi Jinping for the top leadership job, died of a heart attack Friday in Shanghai, according to state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV).

He was 68.

In a short report, state media said Li died early Friday just after midnight after all efforts to save him failed.

Li’s sudden death comes seven months after he stepped down as premier under Xi, a position he held for a decade until he was replaced by a Xi loyalist.

A practical technocrat and free-market advocate, Li was seen as a potential counterweight to Xi’s increasingly ideological vision for managing the country, but his influence as premier was ultimately limited.

“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.

Li Keqiang was born July 1, 1955, in Anhui, one of China’s poorest provinces, where his father was a local official. He was described by classmates and associates as a cautious political operative who moved up quickly through the Communist Party ranks.

Li is survived by his wife, Cheng Hong, an English professor at the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing, the Associated Press reported. The couple has a daughter, according to state media.

After being sent to the countryside during the tumultuous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, he was among the first cohorts of students to secure a place at the prestigious Peking University after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. There he studied economics during a wave of openness and liberal thinking that ended with the crushing of pro-democracy protests in 1989 in Beijing.

Li came to prominence through the Communist Youth League faction, the power base of Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. He became the youngest official to govern a Chinese province when he became party secretary of Henan at age 47.

As a protégé of Hu from a relatively humble background, Li represented a generation of self-made leaders and was once considered the main rival to Xi for the top job. Xi, by contrast, was a “princeling” whose parents were well-known revolutionary leaders. By 2007, the pair became the two youngest members of the Politburo Standing Committee, a small group of leaders at the apex of political power.

Before Li took on the premiership, in charge of the day-to-day running of the government and leading the economy, his links with pro-democracy activists from his university days gave some observers hope he would change China’s autocratic system from the inside. Others believed he would push pro-market economic reforms; he studied under a leading proponent of privatization.

But that was not to be the case. In 2012, Xi was given the top position, and as the country’s No. 2, Li saw his star quickly dim. Unlike previous leaders who shared power – such as Hu and his premier, Wen Jiabao – Xi took more control and turned to close allies to help manage economic affairs.

On paper, Li should have had more influence than his predecessor, Wen, because of Hu’s backing and his strong power base in the Communist Youth League, said Wu of Stanford. But instead, he quickly moved aside as Xi grabbed more control.

Even as he was sidelined, Li came to symbolize dissatisfaction with the statist turn of the economy as regulators cracked down on private industry.

In 2020, as China’s economy suffered during the covid outbreak, Li said in a speech that 600 million people in China were earning less than $140 per month, comments that prompted outrage over continued inequality despite a government campaign to eradicate poverty.

Li, who oversaw the government’s covid response, was also seen as subtly pushing back against its zero covid policy. During the pandemic, he called for “balancing” fighting the virus while also developing the economy.

During the outbreak in 2020, he called for a revival of the once vibrant “hawker economy” of small streetside stalls that had been largely banned – spurring a temporary revival. An ensuing crackdown on the stalls and criticism by state media were widely seen as repudiation of Li and another sign of his weakened position.

The former premier’s career was not without controversy. He was criticized for not doing more to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in Henan, where an estimated 300,000 people were infected through a government blood donation program in the 1990s.

Still, he was best known for his attempts to open up China’s economy. Li, who often quipped that reform was China’s “biggest dividend,” aimed to reshape China’s economy around the emerging middle class and its nascent consumer power. He also showed skepticism for government economic data.

His policies, and alternative economic indicators, became known as “Likonomics.” As Communist Party boss of Liaoning province, an industrial hub in northern China, he dismissed official measures in favor of his own measures based on railway cargo volume, electricity consumption and bank loans, according to a State Department memo released by WikiLeaks.

In 2007, he told then-U.S. Ambassador Clark T. Randt that economic figures published by the government were “unreliable,” according to the cable.

Over the years, Li has tried to reassure international business executives and investors of the resilience of the Chinese economy.

Slipping into English during off-the-cuff remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2015, Li told attendees that China welcomes foreign investment. “We will make sure to protect your lawful rights and interests, including IPR,” he said, referring to intellectual property rights. “You are treated equally as Chinese companies.”

During a visit to Shenzhen last year to pay tribute to Deng Xiaoping, often considered the architect of China’s market liberalization, he spoke about the “earth-shattering changes” brought by opening up to the world and declared that reforms must continue.

“China’s opening up will continue to advance. The Yellow River and Yangtze River will not flow backward,” Li said.