Former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has died of a heart attack at the age of 68, state media reported Friday. A reforming bureaucrat, Li was once seen as the country’s future leader, but was later eclipsed by President Xi Jinping, under whom he served as prime minister for 10 years.
Xinhua news agency said Li had a sudden heart attack on Thursday and died in the early hours of Friday in Shanghai, where he was resting.
During his tenure as prime minister, Li cultivated an image as a more modern apparatchik than his more rigid colleagues.
A career bureaucrat fluent in English, he had expressed support for economic reforms during his term.
He showed liberal leanings in his youth, but toed the party line for decades, and his reputation was tainted by his handling of an HIV/AIDS epidemic resulting from a tainted blood donation program while He was party chief in Henan province.
Local authorities responded by cracking down on activists and the media rather than assigning responsibility to the officials involved, and nationally a series of health scandals also took place under his leadership.
Li, the son of a minor party official in poor eastern China’s Anhui province, was sent to the countryside to work as a manual laborer during China’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution.
He later earned a law degree at Peking University, where classmates say he embraced Western and liberal political theory, translating a book on the law written by a British judge.
But he became more orthodox after joining the ranks of the civil service in the mid-1980s, working as a bureaucrat while his former classmates demonstrated in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Li became the top party official in Henan and the northeastern province of Liaoning, two provinces that have seen economic growth, before being promoted to deputy to the prime minister at the time, Wen Jiabao.
But his attempts to tackle China’s deep economic challenges have been hampered by the overwhelming authority of Xi Jinping, with whom he was once seen as a rival for the country’s leadership.
Li was praised for helping the country get through the global financial crisis relatively unscathed.
But his tenure has been marked by a radical shift in power in China, from the more consensual rule associated with former leader Hu Jintao and his predecessors, to the more concentrated rule of Xi.
It has also seen China’s economy begin to slow from the dizzying heights recorded in the 1990s and 2000s.
When Li left office, China’s economy was experiencing some of its slowest growth in decades, hit by a Covid-19-induced slowdown and a housing market crisis.
The appointment of Xi ally Li Qiang – a former Shanghai party chief – as his successor this year was seen as a sign that his reform agenda had been abandoned as Beijing tightens its grip on its slowing economy.
But in his final speech as outgoing premier, Li struck an optimistic tone, saying China’s economy was “experiencing steady recovery and demonstrating vast potential and momentum for future growth.”
“By overcoming great difficulties and challenges, we have managed to maintain a generally stable economic performance.”
“There has always been a sense that Li was the last bastion of reason and heart in an otherwise ideological era,” historian Jeremiah Jenne said in a post on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)