Former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, an Advocate for Reform Ousted by Xi, Passes Away

Former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang passed away at the age of 68 due to a sudden heart attack. Li had retired less than a year before, ending his two-term service alongside President Xi Jinping. However, he had been increasingly marginalized in the later stages of his career as Xi consolidated power over China’s government and economy.

In the wake of Li’s death, official state media outlets like People’s Daily and China Daily gave relatively low prominence to the news, with other topics such as infrastructure development, foreign investment, and even astronauts taking precedence. David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, noted that high-level political deaths in China are handled with great sensitivity, as there is both power and peril in how they are remembered.

Li’s tenure as premier was marked by disappointment for supporters who had hoped for more economic reforms under his leadership. Instead, his influence waned as Xi’s authority grew, and China moved toward greater authoritarianism. The economic challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic were overshadowed by the “zero COVID” policy, resulting in slower economic growth.

Li, a one-time “sent-down youth” during the Cultural Revolution, overcame his early experiences to become a graduate of Peking University, where he interacted with pro-democracy activists during a period of political and economic liberalization in the 1980s. His career survived the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, and he later aligned himself with the Communist Youth League and its patron, former President Hu Jintao.

Hu’s diminishing public presence and his exclusion from an important session of the 20th Party Congress indicated a possible purge. In his final months before retirement, Li emphasized China’s forward progress, comparing it to the unstoppable flows of mighty rivers. Despite Li’s optimism, his passing has left questions about the reversibility of China’s current political course.

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