Former Chinese premier Li Keqiang died of a heart attack aged 68 in the early hours of Friday in Shanghai.
After a decade of serving as the Communist Party’s No. 2 official, Li retired in March and was replaced by Li Qiang, a close ally of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
As premier, Li was focused on economic reform and promoted trade between China and foreign countries. Early in his tenure, Li also removed restrictions on the flow of people and products within China and was a strong advocate for entrepreneurship. His assessment of the country’s economic trajectory influenced how many economists forecast China’s development. But in later years Li struggled to push forwards his reformist agenda.
Li’s death means that Xi’s power could become even more concentrated, Ian Chong, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie China think tank, told the BBC. Li was among the few officials who was not a loyalist to Xi, Chong notes, and the ex-premier was politically sidelined in recent years. “Li’s death means the loss of a prominent moderating voice within the senior levels of the Chinese Communist Party, with no one apparently being able to take over the mantle,” he said, adding there could be less restraint on Xi’s authority as a result.
The death of a top politician can be a difficult time for the Chinese Communist Party, Joseph Torigian, a China expert at Stanford University’s Hoover History Lab, told the Financial Times. “I’m sure that the obituaries will characterise Li Keqiang as someone who was with Xi Jinping’s project,” Torigian told the outlet. “These are moments where you want the party to come together.” In Chinese state media outlets, news of Li’s death has ranked low on daily headlines, below other daily updates. “High-level political deaths are never a personal matter in China. They are highly sensitive and treated as such because there is power and peril in remembering,” David Bandurski, of the China Media Project, told Al Jazeera.
There has been an outpouring of grief for Li’s sudden death on Chinese social media. Some have used the moment as an opportunity to criticize Xi, noted Ian Johnson in a blog for the Council on Foreign Relations, but their posts were quickly scrubbed. “Xi will likely tolerate some level of public grief but crush any attempts to use Li’s death to organize public protests or mobilize opposition to his leadership,” Neil Thomas, a fellow for Chinese politics at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis, told The Wall Street Journal.