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Li Keqiang, former premier of China, dies aged 68

China’s former premier, Li Keqiang, has died suddenly at the age of 68, according to Chinese state media. Li had a heart attack and died in Shanghai early on Friday, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.

“Comrade Li Keqiang, while resting in Shanghai in recent days, experienced a sudden heart attack on Oct 26 and after all-out efforts to revive him failed, died in Shanghai at ten minutes past midnight on Oct 27,” the state broadcaster CCTV reported.

Observers said Li would be remembered as an advocate for a freer market and China’s more impoverished citizens, but also as a symbol of the political alternative sidelined by the autocratic rise of Xi Jinping.

‘A defeated person’: sidelined by Xi, China’s Li Keqiang bows out as premierRead more

Li was premier – the second-highest position in China’s political system – for a decade from 2013 until he was replaced by Li Qiang in March.

“No matter how the international winds and clouds change, China will unswervingly expand its opening up,” Li said in March, at his last public appearance in a press conference. “The Yangtze River and the Yellow River will not flow backwards.”

In a sign of how the news of his death was being handled by the authorities, some social media users reported that they had been blocked from posting footage of his remarks. In the past, mourning events after the deaths of former leaders have been used by people to express discontent with the current regime.

On Friday morning Li’s death was the top trending topic on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform. Many commenters expressed shock and grief but comments on posts – which were mostly limited to news and government accounts – were restricted or controlled, with only a selection visible.

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Earlier in the day there had been some posts of a song titled “Unfortunately not you” by Fish Leong, which netizens have taken to sharing when a world leader dies, in an apparent reference to Xi, who cannot be openly criticised safely.

Li was believed to be popular among Chinese people and officials, even after his removal as premier. Seen as former leader Hu Jintao’s preferred successor as president, he was overlooked when the leadership chose Xi Jinping in 2012. Li and Hu were both members of Xi’s rival faction within the Chinese Communist party, but its cohort has been sidelined in recent years as Xi consolidated his personal power and moved acolytes into key positions.

“His decade-long tenure also saw a general inability to prevent the political decline of Li’s and his mentor Hu Jintao’s power base, the Communist Youth League,” said Wen-ti Sung, a China expert at the Australian National University.

The son of a local official in the impoverished province of Anhui, Li was sent to the countryside to work as a manual labourer during the Cultural Revolution. He went on to gain a law degree from Peking University, where classmates say he embraced western and liberal political theory, translating a book on the law by a British judge.

But he became more orthodox after joining the ranks of officialdom in the mid-80s, working as a bureaucrat while his former classmates protested in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and rising up the ranks through his involvement in the Communist party Youth League.

In 1998 he became China’s youngest governor, appointed to the densely populated central province of Henan, where he later become party secretary. His reputation was damaged by his handling of an HIV/Aids epidemic stemming from a tainted blood donation programme while in the role. After a stint as party chief of the northern province of Liaoning, he was promoted to a vice-premier under former premier Wen Jiabao from 2008 to 2013, overseeing economic development and macroeconomic management.

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He was known internationally in part for the “Li Keqiang index”, a term coined by the Economist for an informal measurement of China’s economic progress. It was based on a leaked conversation between Li and a US diplomat when Li was party chief in Liaoning. Li reportedly said the province’s GDP figures were “unreliable” and suggested a clearer picture could be taken from electricity consumption, rail cargo and bank lending data.

Sung said Li would likely be remembered as having “looked out for the little guys”, citing Li’s statement during the pandemic that: “600 million Chinese people still make barely 1,000 RMB a month. After Covid people’s livelihood should be our priority.”

But Sung said he would also be remembered for what “could have been”.

Li was a proponent of economic reform, and had at times spoken of China’s economic and social challenges. However, he largely toed the party line, particularly as Xi tightened his grip on power.

During his farewell tour of ministries earlier this year Li renewed calls for economic reform, and videos of him visiting some departments and being warmly greeted were later censored from Chinese social media.

Adam Ni, an independent China political analyst and author, described Li as “a premier who stood powerless as China took a sharp turn away from reform and opening”.

Additional research by Chi Hui Lin