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Li Keqiang, a former premier of China who was edged aside by Xi Jinping, has died

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is shown speaking during a reception at the Great Hall of the People on the eve of China's National Day in Beijing on September 30, 2022.
Noel Celis
/
AFP via Getty Images
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is shown speaking during a reception at the Great Hall of the People on the eve of China's National Day in Beijing on September 30, 2022.

Li Keqiang, who served as China's premier for a decade, has died of a heart attack, according to Chinese state media. He was 68 years old and newly retired.

When Li became premier, many hoped for the best from a man who had a humble upbringing and was trained in economics. Instead, he watched the importance of the role shrivel during his tenure, as China's top leader, Xi Jinping, amassed power.

Li's passing marks the end of an era, according to Victor Shih, an expert on elite Chinese politics at the University of California at San Diego.

"It just spells the end of this whole big attempt to institutionalize the party," Shih said. "He represented the hope of that institutionalization."

After Mao Zedong died in 1976, party leaders, shaken by his destructive Cultural Revolution, developed rules and norms to try to prevent a repeat and keep any one official from gaining too much power or ruling indefinitely. Unwritten paths to promotion formed and rough retirement ages were implemented. Influential party elders also hand-picked promising technocrats for promotions; Shih says Li Keqiang was one of them.

Li was born in Anhui province and came of age in the aftermath of the political upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s. He was among the first class of students to attend college after universities re-opened following the Cultural Revolution, studying law and later economics at prestigious Peking University.

There, he rubbed shoulders with student democracy activists — but unlike them, he instead chose to join the Communist Party.

After graduating, Li spent several years working in the Communist Youth League — an organization that cultivates young party members and doubles as a patronage network within China's arcane political system. Li was groomed for bigger things and his affiliation with the Youth League is considered by many to have been a key part of his rise.

In the late 1990s he made the jump into government roles, and by the early 2000s he was running provinces, including Henan, in central China, and, later, Liaoning, in the northeast.

At the time, Li was considered a potential contender to succeed Hu Jintao as China's president and Communist Party chief within the so-called "fifth generation" of leaders following Mao. By 2007, however, when he and Xi were promoted into the elite Politburo Standing Committee, it was clear to China watchers that Xi had elbowed Li to the side.

Five years later, Li was named No.2 in the party hierarchy and became premier. The role traditionally entails broad oversight of the economy and cabinet, but over the years Li was all but sidelined, as Xi put himself in charge of nearly all aspects of policymaking.

Bert Hofman, director of the East Asian Institute at National University of Singapore, said in a tweet Li was committed to development, intellectually curious, and had a sophisticated understanding of the Chinese economy. Li sought to make China's economy more innovative and productivity driven.

"Events derailed some of his agenda in the past 10 years, but his thinking is still very much relevant today," Hofman, who met Li when he was working in Liaoning province, tweeted on X (formerly known as Twitter).

In January 2017, Li penned an article published by Bloomberg. In it, he said the government was "opting for a lighter, more balanced touch while engaging the market." And he said the state was opening new sectors of the economy and taking steps to make doing business in China easier.

In office, Li tried to lower taxes and cut bureaucratic red tape, with mixed success.

He did, however, have a strong understanding of how to get things done within the Chinese government, and he was a proficient implementer of Xi's policies, according to Shih.

Near the end of his tenure, as the economic fallout from COVID was clear and frustration was growing, Li sought to assuage concerns.

"China's opening will continue. The Yellow River and the Yangtze River will not flow backward," Li said on a trip to the southern city of Shenzhen in August 2022.

This March, he stepped down after serving two five-year terms.

State media reported that he was visiting Shanghai when he died. "All efforts to resuscitate him failed," it said.

Online in China, some expressed shock at Li's death, which comes at a turbulent time for the country as it grapples with a sluggish economy, rocky relations with the West and as question marks hover over Xi Jinping's rule following the unexplained ouster of two cabinet ministers in recent weeks.

"This is hard to believe, so difficult to bear, and it is with deep grief that I mourn Premier Keqiang," said one post.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.