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Newly retired Chinese premier Li Keqiang dies at 68

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

China's former Premier Li Keqiang has died of a heart attack at the age of 68. Li had just stepped down from his post as China's No. 2 official in March. With us now is NPR's Emily Feng to talk about Li's career and legacy. Emily, he just retired - what? - six months ago, right? So how is China reacting to this sudden death?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: People are in shock. And also, his death comes at a really turbulent time for China. There's a sluggish economy going on and already this year the unexplained ouster of two cabinet ministers. People are commenting on his age. I mean, Li, when he was premier, often attracted jokes about his complexion. He just had the look of someone who never slept, and he probably didn't. But people are really surprised still. His death is the most viewed news item on social media. And I have to emphasize, although we have no reason to suspect foul play, there are conspiracy theories abounding online about his death because it was well-known that he had different views from that of China's current leader, Xi Jinping, who Li served for 10 years as premier.

MARTÍNEZ: How were they different?

FENG: Well, just over a decade ago, Li was actually among the top three contenders to become the next leader of China. Obviously, that position went to someone else, to Xi. And Li's forte and his portfolio as premier instead became economic policy, you know, the day-to-day management of governing China. But the division of responsibilities between him and Xi Jinping was often blurry because economic policy increasingly became determined by national security priorities over the last decade and not the kind of pro-investment, more pro-private sector policies that Li was known to favor. And the two men's backgrounds differed, as well. Unlike Xi Jinping, Li was not born into an elite family. He had become a young man in China as China was going through a terrible decade of political violence called the Cultural Revolution.

And so Li actually spent four years in his 20s as a farmer because universities were closed. And when universities finally opened, the first year they opened, he tested into that class. He studied economics and law. He became a development scholar. And in university, Li was actually friendly with pro-democracy student activists and intellectuals. Some of these people later had to flee China. It's not clear how those ideas from Li's youth stayed with him later on. He did commit most of his adult life to serving the Communist Party of China. And he was a very, very careful politician and a good implementer later of Xi Jinping's policies.

MARTÍNEZ: Considering, though, Emily, how much attention Li's death is getting in China, I mean, how do you think he'll be remembered?

FENG: He's going to be remembered for his popular appeal. He was pretty tight-buttoned and moderate, but he could be unscripted and even personable during press conferences. During the COVID pandemic, he gave this big speech about boosting the economy, which was really flagging at the time. And he gave that speech at a time even when Xi Jinping and the rest of Xi's cabinet was still focused on containing COVID cases at zero through strict lockdowns, which was killing the economy. Li advocated for a lighter state touch on the economy, according to a Bloomberg editorial that he wrote in 2017. And he could be pretty straightforward. He was aware of the flaws in his own government. According to leaked diplomatic cables, he apparently told the then-U.S ambassador to China that China's GDP figures were made up, basically, and for reference only.

And it is surprising that he retired so early in - just this year. He gave up all of his positions early this spring, even though by party convention, he could have kept working on. And ultimately, he's going to be remembered as a bit of a tragic figure, you know, this brilliant academic who emerged during China's opening up in the 1980s who seemed to favor ideas of rule of law and political opening up. But he was ultimately overshadowed by Xi Jinping.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Emily Feng. Emily, thanks.

FENG: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.