Former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, an economic reformist sidelined by Xi Jinping, dead at 68 from 'sudden heart attack'

 October 28, 2023

Former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, a reform-minded economist once considered a top prospect to lead as China's president, was essentially sidelined and pushed out of office earlier this year by President Xi Jinping.

Now Chinese state-run media has reported that Li passed away at the age of 68 on Friday following a heart attack, according to the Associated Press.

Li, who served as premier from 2013-2023, had attempted to use his No. 2 position in China's communist leadership to implement an array of free market reforms on the Chinese economy but was largely thwarted in doing so by Xi and his allies who instead favored tighter state controls.

Cause of death reported to be a heart attack

Reuters reported Friday that Chinese state-run broadcaster CCTV had announced, "Comrade Li Keqiang, while resting in Shanghai in recent days, experienced a sudden heart attack on Oct. 26 and after all-out efforts to revive him failed, died in Shanghai at ten minutes past midnight on Oct. 27."

Chinese state-run media outlet Xinhua reported that Li was an "outstanding leader" whose death was a "huge loss to the party and nation," and urged, "We must turn our grief into strength, learn from his revolutionary spirit, noble character and fine style."

What the communist party-controlled Chinese media glossed over or failed to mention was how Li's efforts to transform and grow the Chinese economy through free market principles and openness toward the West were blocked or rendered meaningless by President Xi and the loyalists he has surrounded himself with.

In fact, Xi and his allies inexplicably removed Li from the powerful ruling Standing Committee in October 2022, essentially rendering him powerless and resulting in Li's exiting office in March more than a year before he otherwise would have retired, per the AP.

One potential reason for the thinly-disguised ouster, according to Reuters, was comments Li made in August 2022 during a wreath-laying ceremony in honor of former reform-minded communist leader Deng Xiaoping that some viewed as coded defiance against Xi's statist leadership, when he said publicly, "Reform and opening up will not stop. The Yangtze and Yellow River will not reverse course."

Reformist leader pushed aside by Xi

Reuters reported that Li was born in the poor rural province of Anhui and came of age during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao Zedong as a manual laborer in the fields but eventually earned degrees in law and economics from Peking University.

He joined a reform-minded organization known as the Communist Party's Youth League -- which Xi has since disbanded -- and climbed the ranks with various regional leadership posts before ultimately entering the political scene in Beijing as an ally of former President Hu Jintao and, per the AP, had been considered as Jintao's possible successor in 2013 but was passed over in favor of Xi.

That close connection to Jintao may have spelled doom for Li's political career once Xi assumed the presidency and began to consolidate power and control, which according to CNN may have been made obvious by an odd occurrence at the Communist Party Congress in October 2022, during which Xi all but assumed total power and essentially became president for life.

During that meeting's closing ceremony, a solemn former President Hu was seen patting Li on the shoulder as he was escorted out by allies of Xi -- ostensibly for health reasons -- leaving Li, who had also just been inexplicably removed from the Politburo's Standing Committee, without his chief ally and mentor in a powerless position.

A Li presidency could have significantly altered the current global situation

Reuters noted that analysts and economists around the world lamented what the death of Li meant in terms of the now even dimmer prospects for economic reform in communist China under Xi's consolidated state-centric leadership.

The world can only imagine and wonder how different things might be currently if the reform-minded Li who favored openness toward the West had become China's president in 2013 instead of Xi, who has largely done the opposite of what the former premier sought to do.

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