Reforming China: The Legacy and Passing of Former Premier Li Keqiang
In a stunning turn of events, the Chinese former Premier, Li Keqiang, passed away on Friday, succumbing to a sudden heart attack. This tragic event occurred just seven months after his retirement from a decade-long tenure in office. Li Keqiang, a reformist luminary whose star had dimmed over recent years, was 68 at the time of his demise.
Once considered a top contender for leadership within the Communist Party, Li found himself increasingly marginalized as President Xi Jinping consolidated his power and steered China’s second-largest economy in a more statist direction. An elite economist, Li had been a fervent advocate for a more open-market economy, championing supply-side reforms under the moniker of “Likonomics.” Regrettably, these reforms were never fully realized.
Li ultimately had to acquiesce to President Xi’s preference for a more centralized state control, leading to a decline in his influence as Xi populated key positions with his own supporters.
During a period of respite in Shanghai, our esteemed colleague Comrade Li Keqiang unexpectedly confronted a cardiac episode on October 26th, and despite all-out efforts to revive him, he passed away in Shanghai at ten minutes past midnight on Oct. 27,” as reported by state broadcaster CCTV. An official obituary published by state media Xinhua described his death as a “huge loss to the party and nation,” praising him as an “outstanding leader.”
The obituary underscored his policy accomplishments, repeatedly emphasizing that Li carried out his work under the “strong leadership” of President Xi. The news of his passing triggered an outpouring of grief and shock on Chinese social media, with some government websites adopting black-and-white themes as a sign of mourning. The Weibo microblogging platform, in a poignant gesture, transformed its “like” button into a “mourn” icon in the shape of a chrysanthemum on its mobile app.
Despite his tenure and contributions, some expressed their disbelief at the untimely loss of a beacon of liberal economic reform. Li’s passing was seen by many as marking the end of an era, leaving behind a legacy of unrealized potential.
Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, lamented, “All these types of people no longer exist anymore in Chinese politics.” Li was perceived as less influential than his immediate predecessors, Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao, due to the constraints imposed on him under Xi’s leadership.
Adam Ni, an independent China political analyst, described Li as “a premier who stood powerless as China took a sharp turn away from reform and opening.” Nevertheless, Li’s dedication to economic reform, his compassion in the face of disasters, and his easy rapport with the common people were widely acknowledged in Chinese state media.
Li Keqiang’s passing marks a somber moment in Chinese history, signifying the end of an era that many hoped would lead to a more open and free-market economy. His vision for China may remain unfulfilled, but his legacy as a reformist leader will endure.
Li Keqiang is survived by his wife, Cheng Hong, a professor of English, and their daughter.
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