Sidelined former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang passes away months after retirement

Former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, an acclaimed economist who was once a strong contender against President Xi Jinping for the country's top leadership role, died on Friday of a heart attack.
Former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang
Former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang

Beijing | Former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, an acclaimed economist who was once a strong contender against President Xi Jinping for the country's top leadership role, died on Friday of a heart attack.

Li, 68, suffered a heart attack on Thursday and passed away at 12:10 am in Shanghai after "all-out rescue efforts failed," the official Xinhua news agency reported.

He was in the east Chinese metropolis for “rest” after retiring from active politics in March this year, the state media reported.

He was a contender against Xi to head the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) but later settled for the number two position as Premier from March 2013 to March 2023.

In an obituary issued by the CPC, the Cabinet and Parliament, Li was extolled as an "excellent CPC member, a time-tested and loyal communist soldier and an outstanding proletarian revolutionist, statesman and leader of the Party and the state." In his early years as Premier, Li was associated with managing China's policy towards India.

Soon after he took over as Premier, Li chose New Delhi as his first visit abroad to show the significance China attached to its relations with India while Xi visited Russia.

The proposal for Li's visit came as a surprise to Indian officials as it is very much unlike the protocol-conscious Chinese political setup and it was the turn of the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to visit Beijing to reciprocate the visit of the former Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao's tour to India in December 2011.

Singh later made an official trip to Beijing in 2013.

However, China's complex India policy came under the purview of Xi in the subsequent years as he took direct charge of foreign policy leaving Li to manage the economy which was in a slowdown mode.

Li was an acclaimed economist and managed the “new normal” of economic slowdown after decades of high growth experienced by the world's second-largest economy.

He had an uneasy relationship with Xi, who as the President steadily consolidated his hold on power, emerging as the most powerful Chinese leader after party founder Mao Zedong.

“This is my last year as a premier," Li, the second-ranking leader of the CPC after Xi at that time, said while answering a question on the economy at his last year's customary press conference during the annual Parliament session.

His frank revelation during his annual 2020 press conference that China has 600 million people whose monthly income is barely 1,000 yuan (USD 140), which made headlines all over the world, has not gone down well with the party leadership.

“While the average per-capita annual income in China is 30,000 yuan ((USD 4,193) there are over 600 million people whose monthly income is barely 1,000 yuan, not enough to rent a room in Chinese cities," Li said.

Li, a protege of former Chinese President Hu Jintao was known for his modest and simple style compared to Xi kept a distance from the President. However, like the rest of the CPC leaders routinely endorsed the steady rise of Xi as the “paramount leader” of the party and the government as he assumed an unprecedented third five-year term, doing away with the practice of the two-term norm followed by his predecessors.

Li's retirement announcement ahead of the key CPC Congress to elect a new set of leaders last year was seen as an attempt to distance himself from Xi's decision to continue in power disregarding the two-term norm.

Hu groomed Li, leader of the Youth League for various leadership positions including as Vice Premier but endorsed Xi, then then Vice-President, as his successor in 2012 much to the surprise of other party leaders and observers. After assuming power, Xi dissolved the Youth League, an influential arm of the CPC.

While Li promised to improve conditions in China's private sector which generated jobs and wealth, Xi's preference for increasing the dominance of state industry and tightened control over tech and other industries with anti-monopoly crackdowns and the widespread Covid lockdowns dented his plans.

The official obituary said Li assisted in the work regarding responding to the international financial crisis, accelerating economic restructuring, deepening the implementation of the coordinated regional development strategy.

Li took coordinated moves to keep economic growth stable, carry out reforms, promote structural adjustment, improve people's livelihood, prevent risks, and maintain stability.

He made active efforts to expand effective domestic demand, keep major economic indicators within the appropriate range, and rely on innovation to optimise and upgrade industrial structures, the official obituary said.

Critics say as a result of hardline policies, the Chinese economy is unable to shake off from its slowdown mode.

James Zimmerman, former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China said Li's death is “sad”.

“Li was viewed as a pragmatic leader and encouraged economic reform, and he was much less ideological than those in the Xi Jinping camp. Unfortunately, Li's voice was sidelined as premier and effectively silenced, and then ousted and replaced by a loyalist to Xi last year," Zimmerman said.

Li was succeeded as premier by former Shanghai party chief and Xi loyalist Li Qiang.

"His passing is a significant loss to the moderate voices in the party leadership,” Zimmerman told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

Li, who joined the CPC in May 1976, was a graduate of Peking University's Law Department where he earned a Bachelor of Law degree, and of the university's School of Economics where he completed an in-service graduate programme in economics and was awarded a Doctorate in Economics, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

He earlier served as Governor of Henan province and later as Vice Premier.

Li's wife Cheng Hong is a professor at the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing.

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