Former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, a reform-minded bureaucrat who was once hailed as the country’s future leader before being surpassed by President Xi Jinping, died on Friday. He was 68.
He suffered a heart attack on Thursday and died just after midnight in Shanghai, according to state-run news agency Xinhua.
China’s foreign ministry said it “deeply” mourned Li’s “tragic passing”.
“An obituary will be published soon,” ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a regular briefing.
During his 10-year time as Premier under Xi, Li built an image of himself as a more modern Communist Party adherent than his tougher colleagues.
He was a career bureaucrat who spoke fluent English and advocated for economic reforms during his tenure in office.
During the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, Li, the son of a minor party official in eastern China’s underdeveloped Anhui province, was sent to the countryside to work as a manual laborer.
He then earned a law degree from Peking University, where classmates say he embraced Western and liberal political thinking, translating a book on the law written by a British judge.
However, after joining the ranks of officialdom in the mid-1980s, he grew more conventional, working as a bureaucrat when his former classmates demonstrated in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Li ascended through the ranks of the ruling Communist Party to become the senior official in Henan province and Liaoning in the northeast, both of which saw economic boom.
His reputation, however, was harmed by his management of an HIV/AIDS outbreak caused by a tainted blood donation program while he was party chief in Henan.
Li was then appointed to become Premier Wen Jiabao’s deputy.
His attempts to address China’s severe economic difficulties were thwarted by Xi’s overwhelming influence, despite the fact that he was formerly viewed as a challenger for the country’s leadership.
His time in office saw a radical shift in authority in China from the more consensus-based governance associated with former leader Hu Jintao and his predecessors to the more consolidated power of Xi, who was praised for helping to shepherd the economy through the global financial crisis relatively undamaged.
“People always debated whether (China’s) institutions would… determine the outcomes, as opposed to just raw power,” Victor Shih, an expert on China’s elite politics at the University of California San Diego, told AFP.
“And of course, recent events show that raw power still matters more.”