The sudden news of the passing of former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has shocked the public, with many Chinese netizens exclaiming that it is “unbelievable”, as videos and quotes from Li’s life are circulated.
On 27 October, CCTV news reported that Li had suffered a sudden heart attack on 26 October and passed away at 00:10 the following day in Shanghai. “Comrade Li Keqiang Passes” quickly became the top trending topic on Weibo, and by 10 am, related posts had already been read over one billion times and shared over 240,000 times.
Many Chinese netizens expressed astonishment, making comments such as, “It’s so sudden, I can’t believe it” and “He was still so young”. A video released in March this year summarising Li’s decade in government has been shared nearly 50,000 times, with netizens quoting classic sayings from Li, such as “The Yangtze and Yellow Rivers will not reverse course”(长江黄河不会倒流).
While the details have not been confirmed by official sources, netizens posted that Li suffered a heart attack while swimming at Dong Jiao State Guest Hotel in Shanghai’s Pudong district on 26 October. He was rushed to the Shuguang Hospital Affiliated to Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, but it was too late.
Li, who passed away at the age of 68, hailed from Dingyuan, Anhui province. In his early years, he was a zhiqing (知青, urban intellectual youth) who had been “sent down” to China’s mountainous areas or farming villages to learn from the workers and farmers. He served as a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) branch secretary of a brigade before entering Peking University’s Law School in 1978. After graduating in 1982, he stayed on as secretary of the Peking University Communist Youth League (CYL) Committee, and became a member of the Standing Committee of the CYL Central Committee.
In 1983, 28-year-old Li Keqiang became an alternate member of the secretariat of the CYL Central Committee, working under the leadership of Hu Jintao. In 1985, Li became a secretary in the secretariat of the CYL Central Committee at the age of 30, becoming China’s youngest official at the bureau-director level at the time.
In 1993, 38-year-old Li became the first secretary of the secretariat of the CYL Central Committee, becoming China’s youngest official at the ministerial level at the time. From 1998 to 1999, Li served as acting governor and then governor of Henan province, and was also China’s youngest governor at the time.
Li’s first press conference after becoming premier was peppered with confident soundbites, such as “To provide a better life for people, the government has to tighten its belt”
After the CCP’s 16th Party Congress in 2002, Hu Jintao became general secretary of the CCP and Li was promoted to Henan’s party secretary. In 2004, Li was transferred to Liaoning as party secretary and was once seen as a likely successor to China’s top post.
After the CCP’s 17th Party Congress in 2007, Li was directly promoted from Central Committee member to Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) member, and became the first-ranked vice-premier in 2008. After the CCP’s 18th Party Congress in 2012, Li became the second-ranked member of the PSC. In March 2013, he began his decade-long tenure as China’s premier.
Li’s first press conference after becoming premier was peppered with confident soundbites, such as “To provide a better life for people, the government has to tighten its belt”; “Return to the market the hand that has been misplaced on the government”; and “Reform cannot succeed without real action; getting things done is more important than just yelling”.
In March 2022 at his last press conference as premier, Li stressed that China would stay the course of greater openness, saying that “the Yangtze and Yellow rivers will not reverse course”.
In March 2022 at his last press conference as premier, Li stressed that China would stay the course of greater openness, saying that “the Yangtze and Yellow rivers will not reverse course”. During his inspection of Shenzhen in August that same year, he visited Lianhuashan Park and presented a flower basket to Deng Xiaoping’s statue, reiterating that China will continue to expand its opening up just as the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers will not reverse course.
During the CCP’s 20th Party Congress in October 2022, 67-year-old Li did not follow the unwritten rule in the CCP leadership for Politburo members to stay on at 67 years old and retire at 68, but unexpectedly stepped down as a member of the PSC, fully withdrawing from the highest power centre of the CCP.
Li rarely appeared in public since his retirement. A video of him visiting the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang circulated on social media platforms in early September.
At the Two Sessions in March this year, Li Keqiang stepped down as premier and passed the baton to Li Qiang. On the morning of 5 March, after Li Keqiang finished delivering his last government work report, the hall gave him a 37-second ovation.
Li rarely appeared in public since his retirement. A video of him visiting the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang circulated on social media platforms in early September. According to the footage, Li was seen visiting the Mogao Caves in a group, with tourists at the site greeting him as “premier”. Li smilingly waved at the people, appearing to be in good spirits.
Li had contributed to maintaining China’s economic stability, and in the past decade or so, he was someone who “complied but was unafraid to voice his opinions” — Chao Chun-shan, Honorary Professor, Graduate Institute of China Studies, Tamkang University in Taiwan
Contribution to the economy
Chao Chun-shan, honorary professor at the Graduate Institute of China Studies of Tamkang University in Taiwan, said in an interview that Li was a technocrat, and the economic policies he proposed as premier — also known as “Likonomics” — were centred on “seeking development amid stability”.
Chao opined that Li had contributed to maintaining China’s economic stability, and in the past decade or so, he was someone who “complied but was unafraid to voice his opinions” in the face of the CCP Central Committee’s highly centralised power.
For example, in 2020 while the CCP Central Committee repeatedly stressed that the poverty alleviation policies have been greatly successful, Li frankly said at the Two Sessions press conference that there were 600 million Chinese with a monthly income of only around 1,000 RMB (US$136), drawing attention from various circles.
Chao pointed out that China is now faced with several structural economic issues, and the policymakers are aware of this issue and have begun to make policy adjustments. Li’s past proposals of stable economic development and solving the wealth gap, among other policies, are even more noteworthy now as a reference for officials.