Li Keqiang, China’s former premier, who came to power promising to improve the lot of private companies and restrain the reach of the state but was overshadowed by the hard-line top leader, Xi Jinping, died early Friday. He was 68.
Mr. Li, who was visiting Shanghai, suffered a heart attack on Thursday and died just after midnight on Friday, China Central Television, the state broadcaster, announced. “All efforts to resuscitate him failed,” its report said.
Mr. Li, who had a doctorate in economics, exemplified a generation of highly educated Chinese leaders who rose up as Mao Zedong’s generation faded from politics. As premier, Mr. Li spoke of giving markets a greater role in the economy, and he promised a fairer playing field for private companies, saying they would get the same access as state-owned firms to bank loans, land and other resources.
But his efforts had limited success as he and his allies lost much of their influence. Mr. Xi, China’s most dominant leader in decades, instead promoted a circle of loyalists, defended a central role for state-owned enterprises and pushed for tight supervision of the economy by the ruling Communist Party, emphasizing security and ideology over growth.
“Li Keqiang is not really a symbol of a bygone reform era, as some are making out,” Richard McGregor, a senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia, wrote in an email hours after the death was announced. “He is really a symbol of the Xi Jinping era, in which putative reformers like Li were sidelined and stripped of agency.”
An official obituary of Mr. Li issued late in the day described him as a dedicated official, loyal to Mr. Xi as he administered China’s economic policies and the government’s response to Covid, helping to steer the country through turbulent times.
“We must turn grief into strength, and learn from his revolutionary spirit, noble character and outstanding work style,” the obituary said, urging the country to rally around Mr. Xi.
Many Chinese social media users, who were shocked at Mr. Li’s death, saw his legacy differently. Shen Yachuan, a lawyer and former investigative journalist who uses the pen name Shi Feike, said that some Chinese, like him, would remember Mr. Li for his relatively liberal image and his advocacy of market reforms.
“He may not have been a strong and forceful politician, nor a proficient public speaker,” Mr. Shen wrote in a post on WeChat. “But in my impression, almost all his public expressions were closely related to keywords such as democracy, rule of law, market economy and government streamlining.”
“May this elderly man who was aligned with the direction of his time rest in peace!” he wrote.
Mr. Li will also likely be remembered for an anecdote that gave birth to a closely watched, unofficial economic gauge. In 2007, when he was the leader of Liaoning Province, in the northeast, Mr. Li privately acknowledged to the American ambassador to China that Beijing’s official economic statistics were “man-made” and unreliable, according to a confidential diplomatic cable released in 2010 by WikiLeaks.
He was described as having said that instead of focusing on gross domestic product, he looked at railway freight traffic, electricity consumption and the value of loans disbursed. That alternative measure of growth in China became known as the “Li Keqiang Index.”
Mr. Li stepped down as premier in March after two terms, in line with China’s constitutionally defined term limits. He could have been appointed to another senior role, but he had been effectively pushed out last October, when he was left off the lineup of the 24-member Politburo, the second tier of power, in a leadership reshuffle. His retirement into obscurity became a certainty.
Li Keqiang was born in July 1955 in Hefei, the capital of Anhui Province, in eastern China. He was the son of a minor Communist Party official, Li Fengsan, and his wife, Cao Lijun. Information about his survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Li was among the first students to win a place at the prestigious Peking University after China restored university entrance exams in the late 1970s, following the Cultural Revolution, the decade-long period of political turmoil.
He was a law student at a time of widespread intellectual ferment, and his friends included democracy advocates, some of whom went into exile after the bloody June 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement.
“I was a student at Peking University for close to a decade, while a so-called ‘knowledge explosion’ was rapidly expanding,” Mr. Li wrote in an essay published in a 2008 book. “I was searching for not just knowledge, but also to mold a temperament, to cultivate a scholarly outlook.”
Former classmates recalled that Mr. Li tirelessly studied English, muttering words and phrases to himself even while standing in line for meals at the university canteen.
“His leanings were clearly pro-Western ideas. He certainly wasn’t conservative,” Yang Baikui, a former Peking University student who translated a book by an English judge with Mr. Li, said in 2011. “When he opened his mouth, it wasn’t Mao slogans.”
Mr. Li considered applying to study abroad, but university officials persuaded him to stay at Peking, where he became a leader of the official student society, a former classmate, Tao Jingzhou, recalled in an essay.
While some of his classmates headed into academia and legal work or became political dissidents, Mr. Li turned to a career in the Communist Party, joining the Youth League, which became a channel for ambitious graduates to climb into officialdom.
In 1998, when Mr. Li was 42, he was sent to Henan Province, in central China, becoming the nation’s youngest governor and later the province’s party leader, a more important post. Under his watch, however, a scandal erupted over the spread of H.I.V. through the commercial sale of blood in Henan’s impoverished countryside. Mr. Li endured the fallout, and in late 2004 he became the party secretary of Liaoning, an industrial province struggling with decline in its rust belt cities.
With his advanced degrees, experience in provincial government and patronage from Hu Jintao — then the head of the party, China’s most powerful post — Mr. Li was seen as a contender to succeed Mr. Hu. Instead, Mr. Xi, the “princeling” son of a Communist Party revolutionary, prevailed and was named party leader in late 2012, later becoming president as well. Mr. Li became premier, the No. 2 position in the government.
In his first remarks as premier, in 2013, Mr. Li vowed to rein in the unwieldy bureaucracy and remove obstacles to private investment. “Reforming is about curbing government power,” he said in his opening remarks, which were broadcast live on television. “It is a self-imposed revolution that will require real sacrifice, and it will be painful.”
But over the past decade, Mr. Xi muscled Mr. Li aside on a broad range of policy issues. Mr. Xi created a series of Communist Party commissions to make policy on issues like national security, the economy and finance, supplanting much of the policymaking role once played by government ministries, which reported to Mr. Li as the premier.
Mr. Li never appeared to challenge Mr. Xi, at least not publicly, though he occasionally made gestures that suggested that he wanted to define himself as a more moderate leader.
In August of last year, Mr. Li traveled to Shenzhen, the commercial hub in southern China, and paid homage at a 20-foot bronze statue of Deng Xiaoping, the leader who drove China’s embrace of market forces in the 1980s.
The visit was rich with symbolism, at a time when restrictive Covid policies and government crackdowns on fast-growing industries had rattled the confidence of consumers and businesses. Mr. Li pledged that China would keep opening up to the world.
“Our children will enjoy better lives than us,” Mr. Li told one group of people. He added: “Reform and opening up will continue to move on. The Yellow River and Yangtze River will not flow backward.”
Before long, however, video clips of Mr. Li’s remarks in Shenzhen were reported to have been censored on Chinese social media.
Now the question is how Mr. Xi and the Communist Party will commemorate Mr. Li. Deaths of leaders in China are regarded as politically sensitive, with the potential for setting off unrest.
The authorities have been quick to repress signs of dissent, especially over the past year, as China has grappled with economic challenges, a housing crisis and high youth unemployment. Late last year, people in various Chinese cities held protests against Covid restrictions, presenting the boldest challenge to the party’s rule in decades and an unusual affront to Mr. Xi.
For some Chinese, the news of Mr. Li’s death echoed that of Hu Yaobang, a relatively liberal former Communist Party leader who died of a heart attack during a 1989 party meeting. Mr. Hu’s death was met with a wave of public grief that grew into the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests.
But Mr. Xi exercises tight control over social media, universities and society at large. And Mr. Li was not seen as the kind of transformative figure that Mr. Hu had been in the 1980s, said Joseph Torigian, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Still, Mr. Torigian added, Mr. Xi will want to handle the mourning carefully, including the party’s assessment of Mr. Li’s role.
“I’m sure that this will lead to questions about whether the death of Li Keqiang was partly the result of him feeling frustrated and depressed about the way he was treated, or the way the country is going,” Mr. Torigian said.
“The country, broadly, is in a state of malaise, like it was in 1989, and this is definitely out of the blue,” he said. “The leadership will keep a very close eye on whether people try to use this as an opportunity to create trouble for them.”
Claire Fu, Amy Chang Chien and Li Yuan contributed reporting.