Li Keqiang, who has died aged 68 of a heart attack, was the premier of the People’s Republic of China from 2013 to March 2023. Regarded as a reformist economist, in the decade before his appointment he had figured in many lists of those most likely to be the prime leader of the country after the expected retirement of Hu Jintao. But the final decade of Li’s career was mostly spent in the shadow of the man who eventually prevailed over him, Xi Jinping. Despite this, domestically and internationally he was regarded as a popular figure, and news of his unexpected death was met with respectful comments on Chinese social media.
As premier, Li was the epitome of the loyal, faithful supporter of the main leader. He never dissented publicly from the positions adopted under Xi, who as party secretary and president outranked him. In the early years of his central career, however, he had been supportive of policies which allowed more space to the non-state sector, and which supported further marketisation. As a vice premier in charge of economic affairs from 2007 to 2012, he referred to the need for the country to open up more spaces for growth, through developing its healthcare sector and building better quality infrastructure. He supported a key report issued by the thinktank within the National Development and Reform Commission ministry in 2012 which served as a blueprint for bolder reform. This was co-issued in partnership with the World Bank, and typified an era when Chinese and foreigners were able to collaborate and openly debate ideas about domestic reform.
In the early Xi era, placed in charge of the state ministries, it seemed initially that Li would be allowed large liberty to pursue the ideas of the 2012 report. Party meetings in 2013 and 2014 committed to a framework where the market was taken as key to further development, but with the crucial qualification that this should happen under the guiding hand of the state. That hand was to grow heavier as time went on. “Likonomics”, as Li’s approach was called, was increasingly replaced by “Xiconomics”. Politics took precedence over everything else. Anti-corruption campaigns, ideology training and the primacy of the Communist party above all else in society were the new central tenets. Li, as a technocrat, may have baulked at the wisdom of this approach, but under his stewardship, the economy continued to grow around 6% a year. Only with the onset of the pandemic in 2020 did things falter. By that time, Li was far more of a background figure. It was noticeable that even in overtly economic areas, other figures connected to Xi, such as the vice premier Liu He, took the lead.
Li differed from Xi in that he came from a relatively humble background, for even though his family included party officials, this was only at provincial level. Born in Hefei, the capital of central Anhui province, he was sent from high school for rural labour and joined the Communist party in 1976, and studied law at Beijing University, completing a master’s degree and going on to write a doctorate in economics in 1995. This work, demonstrating his sophisticated analytical skills and familiarity with western jurisprudence, was subsequently published.
Unsubstantiated stories linked him early on in his time at university with the Democracy Wall movement operating in Beijing. In 1978-79, activists responding to the liberalisation after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 posted demands for political reform, and even democracy. Whether true or not, it is clear that Li made an early commitment to an official career, serving as head of the college Communist Youth League, an organisation that operated as a training ground for the party itself. This figured as an important power base over the 1980s and into the 2000s, and had been the source of support for other elite leaders such as Hu Jintao. Li cemented his position by becoming national leader of the league from 1993 to 1998.
This led to him being rewarded with governorship of the massive province of Henan in 1998, until then the youngest appointee to such a position. Six years later he was made party boss of Liaoning province, in the north-east.
But the challenges of these semi-developed places meant his record was not an unblemished one. In Henan he was in charge when an HIV-contaminated blood scandal came to national and international attention. Claims of a cover-up and mismanagement were made, with the population of some villages infected by blood transfusions. In Liaoning he managed a major fire disaster in which dozens of people died and were injured in a nightclub amid claims that health and safety regulations had been violated.
Despite these setbacks, Li’s technocratic ability, his reputation for being uncorrupt and his work ethic made him a contender for central leadership. But his fate was sealed when he emerged at the 17th Party Congress in 2007 one place behind Xi in the communist hierarchy. To this day, it is not known how Xi managed to gain the pole position. The ensuing years reinforced the sense that in Chinese politics, the winner takes everything. Li retired at the 20th Congress in 2022, replaced by Li Qiang. Xi, his colleague for a decade, continued in power, despite being older.
Li was married to Cheng Hong, a professor of English who had been a visiting scholar at Brown University in the US in the mid-90s. They had one daughter, who reportedly also studied in the US.