The sudden death of former Chinese premier Li Keqiang is the latest in a steady series of crises, mishaps, and blunders to afflict top leader Xi Jinping over the past two years.
The official Xinhua news agency said in a terse report that Mr. Li, 68, died of a heart attack early Friday morning in Shanghai. The death clearly caught Chinese officialdom off guard because an obituary had not been prepared, with the agency saying one would be issued later (Eighteen hours later, Xinhua issued an official obituary calling him "a loyal and time-tested" Communist Party member.)
Mr. Li’s death is unlikely to alter the power dynamic at the top of China’s leadership. He had already retired from all posts and was not part of Xi’s inner circle. Although often seen as a pro-reformist moderate in contrast to the more authoritarian-minded Mr. Xi—he held a PhD in economics, and was seen as quick-witted--he never appeared to challenge his boss’s hardline policies. Compared to his more dynamic predecessors, especially the hard-charging Zhu Rongji in the 1990s and the reform-oriented (if tainted by family corruption) Wen Jiabao in the 2000s, Mr. Li was easily one of the most colorless premiers in the nearly 75-year history of the People’s Republic.
Still, his death matters for two main reasons.
One, it has already given people an opening to criticize Mr. Xi. On one Chinese social media platform, Weibo, some people began posting videos of a song “A pity it wasn’t you” by the Malaysian-Chinese singer Liang Jingru, also known as Fish Leong. An hour after the posts went up, however, they were scrubbed by China’s vigilant censors—a sign that they saw the posts as a critique.
Two, Mr. Li’s death is one of a string of mishaps that have plagued Mr. Xi’s rule over the past two years and could be yet another opening for critics to continue to voice their opposition.
The problems began with his administration’s clinging to a policy of lockdowns to eradicate the COVID-19 virus, which led to protests in major Chinese cities in late 2021 and 2022. That was followed by more yet protests against COVID and a slowing economy in late 2022. And then this year, Mr. Xi has lost in succession his foreign minister (allegedly for having a baby out of wedlock); his defense minister (allegedly for corruption or disloyalty) and top leaders of the military’s rocket force.
In contrast to these events, which clearly can be chalked up to missteps and misjudgments by Mr. Xi and his administration, Mr. Li’s death seems merely to have been unfortunate.
But over the years, Chinese citizens have used periods of mourning to express dissatisfaction with the government—possibly because it’s harder for the government to stop people from commemorating the dead.
Most famously, the death of the reformist party secretary, Hu Yaobang, led to the 1989 student-led protests in Tiananmen Square that were put down with military force, killing hundreds. The death of Mao Zedong’s long-time premier, Zhou Enlai, in 1976, also led to protests that became the precursor to the toppling of Maoist radicals and the rise of Deng Xiaoping.
More recently, the death of the eye doctor Li Wenliang during the early phase of the Covid outbreak became a rallying point for people who felt that authorities had allowed the virus to spread because they had squelched whistleblowers like Dr. Li.
So, too, is it within the realm of possibility that, in death, the bland former premier is remembered as a would-be reformer whose plans were ground down by Mr. Xi’s uncompromising opposition to market-based economic and social reform. At the very least, Mr. Li’s death will likely be seen by many inside China as another sign of strange goings-on at the top of their country--and another indication that Mr. Xi’s second decade in power will be much harder than his first.