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Death of Former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang Puts Pressure on Xi, Communist Leadership

Leo Timm
Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: November 2, 2023
Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and Premier Li Keqiang, right, applaud during the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference at the Great Hall of the People on March 4, 2021 in Beijing, China. The annual political gatherings of the National Peoples Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, known as the Two Sessions, brings together Chinas leadership and lawmakers to set the blueprint for the coming year. (Image: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

On Oct. 27, various Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-run media reported the sudden death from “sudden heart failure” of Li Keqiang, who served as China’s premier for a decade, in Shanghai. He was 68.

His sudden passing at an unusually young age for retired Chinese officials has elicited much comment and scrutiny, and the CCP authorities have moved to censor “overly effusive” expressions of mourning for the late premier.

Li, who took office with current leader Xi Jinping in 2013, served as the second-highest ranking official of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) until early this year, being replaced for the role by Li Qiang (no relation).

“Despite all efforts” by medical personnel to treat the former premier, Li expired at 10 minutes past midnight on Friday, Oct. 27, according to Party media.

It took around 10 hours for an obituary to be published, starting with the state-run Xinhua News Agency. The official statements praised Li as an “excellent member of the Chinese Communist Party” and “statesman and leader of the Party and the state” who made many political achievements “under the strong leadership of Party Central with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core.”

Li Keqiang was known as a political ally of Xi Jinping throughout his tenure, as well as a technocrat who stressed the need for solid economic development. According to China-watchers, prior to taking office in 2013, Li had been the favored candidate of outgoing CCP leader Hu Jintao.

The official obituary for Li’s death noted that he had “continued to uphold the leadership of the Party Central with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core” after his retirement, “cared for advancing the cause of the Party and the country, and firmly upheld the Party’s efforts to improve conduct, build integrity, and combat corruption.”

Mourning and speculation

Outside of CCP propaganda mouthpieces, reactions to Li’s death were much more varied.

According to the reports, Li suffered a heart attack while swimming in the evening of Oct. 26, after checking into the Dongjiao Hotel in Shanghai.

Li was an avid swimmer and reportedly in good health.

The unexpected passing of the former premier sparking heated online discussions among those who suspected foul play in Li Keqiang’s death, as well as those who saw him as a more liberal Chinese statesman, especially in comparison to Xi Jinping.

Some online posts pointed to what they claimed was an obituary for Li published inconspicuously on the Xinhua website this February, but with no text apart from the repeated word “test,” implying that Li’s death and obituary had been planned in advance.

Since around 2020, many observers speculated about a rift between Xi and Li, both of whom had taken office following the 18th CCP National Congress in 2012.

One of the more memorable statements made by Li was his 2020 mention that about 600 million people in China were living on a monthly income of 1,000 yuan — a line that ran counter to Xi’s claim of having eliminated “extreme poverty” and having results in achieving a “moderately prosperous society.” 

The CCP authorities censored comments about Li Keqiang’s death on Weibo and other Chinese social media. Information circulating on Western social media showed that universities in China had issued notices banning public mourning for Li.

This did not stop many people across China from commemorating Li on- and offline, including by leaving floral wreaths at Li’s former residence in his hometown of Hefei, Anhui Province.

“The people’s premier.” “Rest in peace.” “A good premier whose political career shouldn’t have ended the way it did,” one Chinese internet post translated by Radio Free Asia reads.

Overseas media suggested that Li, in contrast to Xi, was a “reformer” who had been “sidelined” by the more authoritarian Party head, and played up the differences and supposedly rivalry between the two officials.

Li’s legacy

The unexpected death of Li Keqiang adds more pressure on the Xi leadership, especially following the recent high-profile removals of defense minister Li Shangfu and foreign minister Qin Gang, both of whom were allies of Xi Jinping and handpicked by him for their roles before their downfalls.

Mounting discontent over the CCP’s clamping down on civil society, the three years of “zero-COVID” lockdowns, and worsening economic conditions have seen people at all levels of society pin the blame on Xi, who during his time in power has stressed the need to follow the Party as well as his paramount position as the CCP’s leader.

According to analysts at political risk consultancy SinoInsider, the apparent “sideling” of Li vis-a-vis Xi was the result of Xi’s having elevated his role as Party “core” leader much higher than that of the “collective leadership” system that supposedly characterized CCP politics prior to 2012.

Despite this, the analysts believe that while Li may have had his disagreements with Xi, he was never in a position to challenge him, and “became negligible as a political force and posed no threat to Xi” following his retirement.

In addressing speculation that Li was assassinated on Beijing’s orders, SinoInsider dismissed the scenario as vanishingly unlikely, as Li’s death would almost certainly do more harm than good to Xi’s image.

Given Li’s status as a member of Xi’s faction, and in light of the strange circumstances allegedly surrounding his death, it “cannot be ruled out that ‘anti-Xi’ forces decided to go after the retired Li Keqiang, who almost certainly received less protection as compared with Xi and other current members of the Xi leadership,” SinoInsider wrote in an Oct. 30 newsletter.

Those in the CCP elite opposed to Xi — namely the faction associated with former Party head Jiang Zemin and his lieutenant, former Chinese vice president Zeng Qinghong, “have a lot to gain by allowing the perception that Xi could have ‘silenced’ Li to circulate in the public discourse,” per the analysis.