How China’s Li Keqiang was left out in the cold

His sudden death could be used as a way to criticize his former boss Xi Jinping

The sudden death of former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is the latest in a steady series of crises, mishaps, and blunders to afflict top leader Xi Jinping during the past two years.

The official Xinhua News Agency said in a terse report that Li, 68, died of a heart attack early on Friday in Shanghai. The death clearly caught Chinese officialdom off guard. 

His passing is unlikely to alter the power dynamic at the top of China’s leadership as he had already retired from all posts and was not part of Xi’s inner circle. 

Although often seen as a pro-reformist moderate in contrast to the more authoritarian-minded Xi – he held a PhD in economics and was seen as quick-witted – he never appeared to challenge his boss’ hardline policies. 

Compared to his more dynamic predecessors, especially the hard-charging Zhu Rongji in the 1990s and the reform-oriented, if tainted by family corruption, Wen Jiabao in the 2000s, Li was easily one of the most colorless premiers in the nearly 75-year history of the People’s Republic.

Social media

Still, his death matters for two main reasons.

One, it has already given people an opening to criticize Xi. On the social media platform, Weibo, some people began posting videos of the song, A Pity It Wasn’t You, by the Malaysian-Chinese singer Liang Jingru, also known as Fish Leong.

An hour after the posts went up, however, they were scrubbed by China’s vigilant censors – a sign that they saw the posts as a critique.

Li Keqiang in the shadow of President Xi Jinping. Photo: File

Two, Li’s death is one of a string of mishaps that have plagued Xi’s rule during the past two years and could be yet another opening for critics to continue to voice their opposition.

The problems began with his administration’s policy of clinging to lockdowns to eradicate the Covid-19 virus, which led to protests in major Chinese cities in late 2021 and 2022. 

That was followed by more protests against Covid-19 and a slowing economy late last year. 

Xi then lost in quick succession his Foreign Minister Qin Gang for allegedly having a baby out of wedlock and his Defense Minister Li Shangfu for alleged corruption or disloyalty. 

Top leaders of the military’s rocket force were also dismissed.

Mourning period

In contrast to these events, which clearly can be chalked up to missteps and misjudgments by Xi and his administration, Li’s death seems merely to have been unfortunate.

Yet over the years, Chinese citizens have used periods of mourning to express dissatisfaction with the government – possibly because it’s harder for the administration to stop people from commemorating the dead.

Most famously, the death of the reformist Communist Party Secretary, Hu Yaobang, led to the 1989 student-inspired protests in Tiananmen Square that were put down with military force, killing hundreds. 

Rest in peace posters for Chinese whistleblower Dr Li Wenliang. Photo: UnSplash

The death of Mao Zedong’s long-time premier, Zhou Enlai, in 1976, also led to protests that became the precursor to the toppling of Maoist radicals and the rise of Deng Xiaoping.

More recently, the death of the doctor Li Wenliang during the early phase of the Covid-19 outbreak became a rallying point for people.

They felt that authorities had allowed the virus to spread because they had squelched whistleblowers like Li.

So, too, is it within the realm of possibility that, in death, the bland former premier is remembered as a would-be reformer whose plans were ground down by Xi’s uncompromising opposition to market-based economic and social reform. 

Second decade

At the very least, his death will likely be seen by many inside China as another sign of strange goings-on at the top of their country – and another indication that Xi’s second decade in power will be much harder than his first.

Ian Johnson is the Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. An expert on Chinese politics, society, and religion, he is also the author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao.

This article, originally a Blog Post, was published by the Council on Foreign Relations under a Creative Commons license. Read the original here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.