The sudden death of China’s former No. 2 leader Li Keqiang has shocked many

by Joshua Brown
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Li Keqiang's Legacy

The unexpected passing of China’s former second-in-command, Li Keqiang, has sent shockwaves throughout the nation. This tragic event has led to an outpouring of tributes for the former official, who had promised market-oriented reforms but found himself politically marginalized.

Li Keqiang, who succumbed to a heart attack early on Friday, served as China’s top economic official for an impressive decade. During his tenure, he played a pivotal role in guiding the world’s second-largest economy through a host of challenges, including mounting political, economic, and military tensions with the United States and the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.

In a brief obituary, the official Xinhua News Agency eulogized Li as an exemplary member of the Communist Party of China, a steadfast and devoted communist, and an outstanding figure in proletarian revolution and statesmanship, both within the Party and the state.

Li Keqiang was widely recognized for his advocacy of private enterprise. However, as President Xi Jinping consolidated his authority, expanding the influence of the military and security apparatus in pursuit of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Li gradually lost much of his political clout.

The news of Li’s passing sparked an overwhelming response on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, with a related hashtag garnering over 1 billion views within a few hours. Users expressed their condolences by turning the “like” button into a daisy, a customary symbol for funerals in China, and offered heartfelt messages of “rest in peace.” Many acknowledged his contributions and mourned his loss.

Surprisingly, the Chinese government initially remained relatively reserved in its response to Li’s passing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning directed reporters to official sources like Xinhua for information and simply stated, “We deeply mourn over the tragic passing of Comrade Li Keqiang due to a sudden heart attack.”

Among the citizens of Beijing, there was a deep sense of sadness at the news. Many, like Xia Fan, regarded Li as a conscientious and responsible premier who had played a significant role in their lives. Designer Chen Hui emphasized Li’s substantial contributions to China’s development, describing his legacy as immeasurable.

Internationally, figures such as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns conveyed their condolences to Li’s family and the Chinese people, acknowledging his role in shaping China’s relations with the world.

Li Keqiang, an economist fluent in English, belonged to a generation of politicians who were educated during a period of greater openness to Western liberal ideas. He overcame the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution and earned a place at the prestigious Peking University based on his merit rather than political connections.

A decade ago, Li was seen as the preferred successor to then-Communist Party leader Hu Jintao for the presidency. However, the need to balance party factions ultimately led to the selection of Xi Jinping as the consensus candidate, marking a turning point in Chinese politics.

Despite their differences in leadership styles and priorities, Li and Xi never openly clashed on fundamental issues. Nevertheless, Li’s departure from the Standing Committee last year signaled a shift away from technocratic leadership in favor of officials known primarily for their unwavering loyalty to President Xi.

In closing, the passing of Li Keqiang has left a profound impact on China and the international community, marking the end of an era in Chinese politics and economics. His contributions and the legacy he leaves behind will be remembered and analyzed for years to come.

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