The Good Die Young

Li Keqiang, China’s de jure No. 2 leader for a decade, is no more.

Li, who was forced into retirement this year after being sidelined at the Party congress last October, died suddenly of a heart attack early Friday. Natural causes, as it were.

We should all assume that’s true. I don’t know the first thing about Li’s health, and even if I did, I’m not a medical doctor. I assume even the keenest Communist Party observers possess no deep familiarity with the leadership’s medical records.

With that, and with a mind to avoiding even the appearance of conspiratorial speculation in keeping with my long-standing editorial commitment in that regard, we can (and should) state some facts.

Li’s death came as a shock. 68 isn’t “young” even on a generous interpretation of the word, but it’s not ancient either, particularly in the context of top Chinese leaders. Hu Jintao’s 80. Deng Xiaoping lived to be 92. Jiang Zemin died last year at 96. Li’s immediate predecessors, Wen Jiabao and Zhu Rongji, are both still alive. Wen’s 81, Zhu’s a spritely 95. “Top-level Chinese leaders have a track record of longevity,” as one political scientist in Australia put it Friday. Top Party officials get great medical care.

Li’s entire career, and particularly the years spent in the increasingly long shadow of Xi, was a case study in cognitive dissonance. An economist, Li was a staunch advocate for prioritizing economic development and reducing the role of bureaucracy in society. But that’s almost an oxymoron. “Opening up” or not, market reforms or no, every top CCP official is bureaucracy incarnate, no matter how relatively moderate they might be.

In his very first address as Premier a decade ago, Li spoke of “curbing government power.” His exhortations for the Party to safeguard the economy in 2022 went mostly unheeded amid Xi’s draconian virus dragnet. Domestic demand still hasn’t recovered, and sentiment remains bleak, just as Li might’ve predicted.

Li was well-known outside of China. In market circles, and certainly among economists, he was a household name. There’s an index named after him, and most market participants have at least run across it at one time or another. After losing out to Xi for the party leadership in 2012, Li never challenged the big man. Early on, that was out of respect for decorum. Later, his reluctance to speak up publicly about the deleterious impact of Xi’s totalitarian turn was almost surely attributable to fear.

It’s probably true that Li was distressed this year by the economy’s poor performance and by Xi’s openly dictatorial leanings. Many observers and economists believe Xi has squandered China’s chances of overtaking the US as the top economy on Earth, and in any case, he’s certainly set the economy back in ways that one has to believe were anathema to Li. Were his deep misgivings enough to bring on, or contribute to, a massive heart attack?

Obviously, Li wasn’t going to start a second career as a Party critic and rabble-rouser, but there’s a sense in which he was an ideological loose end. As one former Peking University student who translated a book with Li told The New York Times Friday, “His leanings were clearly pro-Western. He certainly wasn’t conservative. When he opened his mouth, it wasn’t Mao slogans.”

A few commentators tried to draw a parallel with Hu Yaobang. Hu’s death set in motion the events which culminated in the Tiananmen protests. I don’t think the comparison works. For one thing, Hu died of a seizure seven days after a heart attack, not of the heart attack itself, but that’s a minor detail. The more important point is that Li was no Hu. Everyday Chinese, irritable though some surely are, won’t use Li’s funeral as an excuse to stage a quasi-uprising.

There were similar rumblings last year, by the way. Some suggested Jiang’s death, and particularly the potential for Xi to mishandle it, could worsen street protests aimed at pressuring the Party to abandon virus curbs. Ultimately, the mourning for Jiang came and went without incident.

Still, the Party will be keen to manage the messaging around Li’s untimely demise. Xi’s certainly apprised of the mistakes made during Hu’s remembrance in 1989, and how those mistakes ultimately led to an existential crisis for the Party. Li’s remembrance will be a delicate balancing act. Bottom line: It can’t come across as deliberately or disrespectfully understated. That’s manageable. Xi will figure it out.

“Xi will likely respect party tradition and lead public mourning for Li, as he has no reason to anger Li’s colleagues and supporters in the party, whose waning political influence is further weakened by his death,” a fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s center for China analysis told Reuters. “Xi may allow some public mourning for Li but will likely have zero tolerance for attempts to use Li’s death to oppose his leadership.”

A year ago, speaking to the Times after Li’s retirement was made a foregone conclusion at the Party congress, CIA analyst Christopher Johnson said, of China, “There’s been a lot [of] premier-as-savior talk. Obviously that’s not going to happen.” 12 months later, nearly to the day, Li was dead.


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