The sudden death of China’s former second-ranking leader, Li Keqiang, has shocked many people in the country, with tributes offered up to the ex-official who promised market-oriented reforms but was politically sidelined.
Li, who died early Friday of a heart attack, was China’s top economic official for a decade, helping navigate the world’s second-largest economy through challenges such as rising political, economic, and military tensions with the United States and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Li was extolled as an excellent [Chinese Communist Party] member, a time-tested and loyal communist soldier and an outstanding proletarian revolutionist, statesman and leader of the Party and the state,” the official Xinhua News Agency said in its brief obituary.
Li was known for his advocacy of private business but lost much of his influence as President Xi Jinping accumulated ever-greater powers and elevated the military and security services in aid of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
A hashtag related to his death on the Chinese social media platform Weibo drew over 1 billion views in just a few hours. On posts about Li, the “like” button was turned into a daisy – a common flower for funerals in China, and many users commented “rest in peace.” Others called his death a loss and said Li worked hard and contributed greatly to China.
The Chinese government, however, had little to say immediately about Li. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning asked reporters to refer to information from official news agency Xinhua and the obituary released later.
“We deeply mourn over the tragic passing of Comrade Li Keqiang due to a sudden heart attack,” she said.
Beijing resident Xia Fan, 20, said she was saddened by the death of Li, whom she called “a really conscientious and responsible premier.” She said her mind was blank when she first heard about the news.
“He really accompanied the growth of our generation, that’s how it feels in my heart,” she said.
Designer Chen Hui said Li contributed greatly to China’s development. “If I were to talk about it, it’s impossible to finish it in one day. It’s a pity,” Chen said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed his condolences on the passing of Li, said Matthew Miller, State Department spokesperson.
Nicholas Burns, U.S. ambassador to China, also extended his condolences to Li’s family, the Chinese government, and the Chinese people in both English and Chinese on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Japan’s embassy in China expressed its condolences on Weibo. It said Li had visited Japan in 2018 and he played an importance role in the relations of both countries.
Li, an English-speaking economist, was from a generation of politicians schooled during a time of greater openness to liberal Western ideas. Introduced to politics during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, he made it into prestigious Peking University, where he studied law and economics, on his own merits rather than through political connections.
Li had been seen as former Communist Party leader Hu Jintao’s preferred successor as president about a decade ago. But the need to balance party factions prompted the leadership to choose Xi, the son of a former vice premier and party elder, as the consensus candidate.
The two never formed anything like the partnership that characterized Hu’s relationship with his premier, Wen Jiabao – or Mao Zedong’s with the redoubtable Zhou Enlai – although Li and Xi never openly disagreed over fundamentals.
Last October, Li was dropped from the Standing Committee at a party congress despite being more than two years below the informal retirement age of 70. He stepped down from the premiership in March and was succeeded by Li Qiang, a crony of Xi’s from his days in provincial government. His departure marked a shift away from the skilled technocrats who have helped steer China’s economy in favor of officials known mainly for their unquestioned loyalty to Xi.