The Sudden Death of China’s Former No. 2 Leader LI Keqiang Has Shocked Many

FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with former Premier Li Keqiang during a session of China's National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Saturday, March 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

HONG KONG (AP) — The sudden death of former China’s No. 2 leader Li Keqiang has shocked many people in the country, and they are paying tribute to the ex-official who promised market-oriented reforms but was politically sidelined.

Li, who died Friday of a heart attack, was China’s top economic official for a decade, helping navigate the world’s second-largest economy through challenges such as tensions with the United States and the COVID-19 pandemic.

He was known for his advocacy of private business but lost much of his influence as President Xi Jinping accumulated ever-greater powers and elevated the military and security services in aid of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

FILE – Then China’s Premier Li Keqiang speaks during the ASEAN – China Summits (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Friday, Nov. 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith, File)

A hashtag related to his death on the Chinese social media platform Weibo drew over 1 billion views in just a few hours. On posts about Li, the “like” button was turned into a daisy — a common flower for funerals in China, and many users commented “rest in peace.” Others called his death a loss and said Li worked hard and contributed greatly to China.


The Chinese government, however, had little to say immediately about Li. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning asked reporters to refer to information from official news agency Xinhua and the obituary to be released later.

“We deeply mourn over the tragic passing of Comrade Li Keqiang due to a sudden heart attack,” she said.

Beijing resident Xia Fan, 20, said she was saddened by the death of Li, whom she called “a really conscientious and responsible premier.” She said her mind was blank when she first heard about the news.

FILE – Then Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (R) meets with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who is attending the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, in Beijing, capital of China, April 26, 2019. (Xinhua/Liu Weibing)

“He really accompanied the growth of our generation, that’s how it feels in my heart,” she said.

Designer Chen Hui said Li contributed so much. “If I were to talk about it, it’s impossible to finish it in one day. It’s a pity,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed his condolences on the passing of Li, said Matthew Miller, State Department spokesperson.

Nicholas Burns, U.S. ambassador to China, also extended his condolences to Li’s family, the Chinese government and the Chinese people in both English and Chinese on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Japan’s embassy in China expressed its condolences on Weibo. It said Li had visited Japan in 2018 and he played an importance role in the relations of both countries.

Li, an English-speaking economist, was from a generation of politicians schooled during a time of greater openness to liberal Western ideas. Introduced to politics during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, he made it into prestigious Peking University, where he studied law and economics, on his own merits rather than through political connections.

FILE – Then Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, left, and Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra share a light moment during their meeting at the government house in Bangkok Friday, Oct. 11, 2013. Li is on a three-day visit to Thailand. (AP Photo/Damir Sagolj, Pool)

Li had been seen as former Communist Party leader Hu Jintao’s preferred successor as president about a decade ago. But the need to balance party factions prompted the leadership to choose Xi, the son of a former vice premier and party elder, as the consensus candidate.

The two never formed anything like the partnership that characterized Hu’s relationship with his premier, Wen Jiabao — or Mao Zedong’s with the redoubtable Zhou Enlai — although Li and Xi never openly disagreed over fundamentals.


Last October, Li was dropped from the Standing Committee at a party congress despite being more than two years below the informal retirement age of 70. He step down in March and was succeeded by Li Qiang, a crony of Xi’s from his days in provincial government. His departure marked a shift away from the skilled technocrats who have helped steer China’s economy in favor of officials known mainly for their unquestioned loyalty to Xi.


Kanis Leung reported from Hong Kong Associated Press journalist Simina Mistreanu in Beijing contributed to this report.