Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attends the Special Virtual Dialogue with Global Business Leaders hosted by the World Economic Forum, delivers remarks and holds dialogue and exchanges with participating global business leaders at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, July 19, 2022. (Photo by Zhang Ling/Xinhua via Getty Images)
See why Beijing has banned images of public mourning of an ex-leader
02:38 - Source: CNN

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Hong Kong CNN  — 

Former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, once seen as a reform-minded contender to the country’s top leadership role, died of a sudden heart attack early Friday in Shanghai, state media reported.

He was 68 years old.

Li, who was nominally China’s No. 2 leader until late last year, served as the country’s premier – traditionally in charge of the economy – for a decade from 2013 to March this year under strongman leader Xi Jinping.

During his time in the role, Li navigated the world’s second-largest economy through a challenging period of rising technology and trade tensions with the United States, mounting government debt and unemployment, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

In his final year in power, the economist by training had been a strong voice warning of challenges to China’s economy amid widespread Covid-19 lockdowns, while backing efforts to boost employment and maintain economic stability.

Li, known to use his English language skills on occasion in appearances outside the mainland, was also seen as representing a different approach to China’s ties with the world, at a time when the country’s relations with the West have grown increasingly strained.

“China and the United States have common interests,” Li said in response to CNN’s question at his annual press conference in March 2021. “The two countries need to put more energy on their common ground and expand converging interests.”

As the news of Li’s death broke Friday morning, social media users circulated a line from Li’s yearly address to China’s rubber stamp parliament in 2022, where he pledged that, “No matter how the international environment may change, China will keep the course of wider openness.”

Li, a highly educated technocrat with degrees in law and economics, was considered friendly to the private sector. He was also seen to have a diverging policy stance from Xi, who has tightened the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s control over the economy.

A reform-minded leader

Li oversaw much of China’s efforts to prop up economic growth during his decade-long tenure and remained a supporter of the global integration of China’s economy, even as he found himself increasingly sidelined by Xi.

As international doubts grew in recent years over Beijing’s resolve to continue the “reform and opening” policy, Li had repeatedly told foreign corporate executives and local officials that such economic development remained the party’s priority.

During the country’s Covid lockdowns, he held meetings instructing various government departments to clear logistical hurdles for foreign companies to resume production.

“(Li) was the only member of the Politburo Standing Committee to have openly advocated for the continuation of (former leader) Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy, which ran counter to the instincts of Xi Jinping,” said Willy Lam, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation think tank in the US, pointing to Xi’s inclination toward state-controlled measures.

Li is also remembered for his focus on addressing societal ills – with social media users on Friday also pointing to his comments noting that 600 million people in China – or roughly 40% of the population – still had a monthly income of 1,000 yuan ($137).

Those remarks, made during the premier’s annual press conference in 2020, served as a reminder of China’s ongoing struggle to lift people out of poverty, even as Xi hailed China’s efforts in this regard as a point of national pride.

During the pandemic, where Beijing’s policies brought large swathes of the country to a halt, Li called local officials to “earnestly” implement policies to stabilize the economy and support small businesses and employment.

He was also the highest level official to visit Wuhan in January 2020, when the city was under lockdown and battling a surge of infections in the world’s first known Covid-19 outbreak.

Some of Li’s efforts to bolster the economy appeared to underscore his rift with Xi, and the premier was widely seen as lacking power relative to many of his predecessors.

When the premier called for the revival of street stalls as a way to jump start growth and fix a spiraling jobs crisis, his proposal met with criticism from a number of state media outlets.

The backlash from party mouthpieces sparked speculation of conflict between the two most senior party figures over how to stimulate the economy amid strict pandemic controls.