Former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was hailed as a reformer, but real change never came. Xi Jinping sidelined him politically during his lifetime and overshadowed him even in the hour of his death.
Former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang suffered a sudden heart attack last Friday and died while “resting” in Shanghai, where he had retreated after his forced retirement in October last year. Between 2012 and 2022, Li was nominally the second most powerful man in China, but in practice he was completely overshadowed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Li Keqiang’s legacy will thus be determined primarily by unfulfilled hopes for his reforms and the massive shadow of the general secretary’s personality cult.
An economics student inspired by the West
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Li built his career as an apparatchik in the Communist Youth League, whose alumni, including China’s later president Hu Jintao, formed a loose political faction known as tuanpai. At the same time, he profiled himself as an economic expert; unlike many Chinese political leaders, he wrote his dissertation himself and won several awards for it. In 1998, he became China’s youngest provincial governor when he took over the large, poor and disaster-prone Henan province, where he helped kick-start economic growth.
Li’s wife Cheng Chung is a university professor specializing in American literature. In 1991, she also translated the book version of the classic British political sitcom Sure, Minister into Chinese. Readers will certainly not be surprised that thanks to the theme of frustration with bureaucracy and bureaucratic arrogance, this cult series became a hit in China. As with many other Chinese representatives their daughter was sent to the United States for university.
Unlike Si, Li himself could speak English well, even translating a book on constitutional law as a student. Later, as a top party functionary and protégé of Xi’s predecessor as General Secretary, Hu Jintao, he showed reformist – i.e. liberalizing – tendencies. And that both on the economic level and (more cautiously) on the political level. Even before he became prime minister, he gained popularity among foreign diplomats, especially Western ones, who hoped from him a kind of convergence of the Chinese system with the Western one. He became famous among the professional public in the West when the Economist magazine created the so-called Li Keqiang Index. These were unofficial but useful methods of evaluating China’s economic performance. Indeed, there are very good reasons to doubt the magnitude of Beijing’s (and other autocratic countries’) economic achievements – non-democratic governments are particularly prone to inflate statistics about their economic performance.