In 1978, the Cultural Revolution was over and all across China young people who had been ordered by Mao Zedong to labour in the countryside were making their way to the nation’s cities.
Among the first students to enrol in Beijing’s prestigious Peking University was a young Li Keqiang, the future premier of China who from 2013 to 2023 would preside over some of the most challenging years for the world’s second-largest economy in recent decades.
“When he spoke I thought: ‘Oh this guy is pretty good’,” Wu Guoguang, a fellow student, told the Financial Times about seeing the man who would become China’s second-most powerful official at student symposia.
But Wu, who would later advise former premier Zhao Ziyang, recalled that Li was also “very, very cautious”.
That mixture of ambition and acute risk aversion would later aid the ascent of Li, who died suddenly in Shanghai from a heart attack early on Friday aged 68. But it would also hinder his ability to assert himself under President Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Mao.
A capable and outward-looking technocrat, Li was seen as the more reform-minded face of Xi’s increasingly authoritarian government during his decade in office.
From the outset, he was forced to confront a persistent challenge for Chinese policymakers: how to keep the economy growing while unwinding staggering debt accumulated from earlier stimulus efforts and over-investment, but at the same push ahead with social programmes and bureaucratic reform.
Barclays in 2013 dubbed his platform “Likonomics”, which it summarised as: “No stimulus, deleveraging and structural reform.” Of those priorities, it was the third that Li struggled with most as Xi pursued a more overtly statist economic policy.
Bert Hofman, a former China country director for the World Bank, said Li’s original 2013 policy agenda “set China up for more innovation and productivity-driven growth, with the market in a decisive role”.
This road map was derailed by financial market volatility in 2015, when China’s stock market crashed, and Xi’s growing preoccupation with security, “which must have been frustrating” for Li, Hofman said.
Li’s second challenge as head of economic management was the coronavirus pandemic, which erupted in Wuhan in 2019. China’s system of mass testing, quarantines and travel bans initially limited transmission of the virus. But the economy suffered, especially after Beijing imposed even more stringent measures in 2022 before hastily reopening, exposing its vulnerable population.
Xi also stepped up a simultaneous crackdown on internet entrepreneurs and the property and financial sectors, crucial economic drivers, that further slowed growth and scared away private and foreign investors.
Unlike many of China’s leaders, including Xi, Li was not a “princeling”, or the child of Communist party elite. Instead, he was born in 1955 in Dingyuan county, in central Anhui province, to a family of lower-level local party officials.
He joined a rural commune in 1974, and entered the Communist party two years later.
He married Cheng Hong, an English language and literature professor whose father was an official in the Communist Youth League, a powerful political faction. The couple had one daughter, according to Chinese leadership expert Cheng Li, formerly of the Brookings Institution.
At Peking University, Li read AV Dicey, an expert on British constitutional law, and helped translate The Due Process of Law by Lord Denning. After his law degree, he acquired a PhD in economics.
Li occupied important provincial governor and party secretary posts in the populous central Henan province and Liaoning province, in the north-eastern rustbelt, where he was credited with upgrading low-income housing. But his record in Henan was marred by accusations of trying to cover up an HIV outbreak from blood transfusions.
In a private meeting with the US ambassador to China in 2007, Li described his country’s gross domestic product figures as “man-made”. In Liaoning, he said, he relied on three alternative indicators: electricity consumption, rail cargo and loan disbursement, a measurement of economic activity later dubbed the “Li Keqiang index”.
A protégé of Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao through his membership of the Communist Youth League, Li reached the ranks of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top political body, in 2007. He served as vice-premier and at one point was considered a contender for party leader before Xi’s appointment in 2012.
Some analysts said Li’s political marginalisation began well before the pandemic as Xi began to rely more heavily on vice-premier Liu He, who served under the premier as economic team leader.
One Beijing-based government adviser noted that Li made progress on reforms such as cutting local government red tape, but his influence waned as Xi consolidated his personal grip over the party and state.
“Li could ask provincial governors and city mayors to follow his orders. But he couldn’t ask ministers to do so as they increasingly answered to the party and by extension Xi,” the adviser said.
Occasionally, Li seemed to betray signs of dissent with Xi’s agenda. In 2020, Li said 40 per cent of Chinese were still making less than $140 a month, a slight to Xi’s flagship poverty alleviation agenda.
In April last year, Li undercut Xi’s campaign to rein in tech, telling a cheering crowd of ecommerce executives, “we support the platform economy”, and the following month, he notably did not explicitly support the Covid restrictions in a meeting with foreign multinationals.
But Joseph Torigian, an expert on elite Chinese and Soviet politics at Stanford University’s Hoover History Lab, said ties between the Communist party’s top leaders and their deputies had always been fraught.
“It is important to remember that we know very little about the personal relationship” between Xi and Li, Torigian said.
Li’s career ended last October, when Xi stacked the Politburo Standing Committee with loyalists, excluding officials from rival factions.
The 20th Communist party congress, where Xi also shattered precedent by claiming a third term as leader, was also marked by a dramatic moment when Hu, Li’s mentor, was abruptly escorted out of the chamber. Li could only sit in silence as the drama, extremely rare for the carefully staged event, unfolded. The reasons for Hu’s removal have never been explained.
But in his own quiet way, Li may have had the last word. In a farewell speech this year to employees of the State Council, China’s cabinet, he warned: “Heaven is looking at what humans are doing. The firmament has eyes.”