The following essay by Wang Tiancheng was posted on Twitter titled “A Side View of Li Keqiang” (《李克强的一个侧面》), and I take the liberty to give it the somewhat inflated title you see so as to bring the essay into focus. The 1980s was a highly interesting and exciting time in China, a time marked by thirst for knowledge of the West and from the West, and in a sense, the country was a blank paper to draw on. It was also Li Keqiang’s intellectual formative years. I have more than once, over the years, heard of people mentioning Li Keqiang’s close relationship with Peking University law professor Gong Xiangrui (龚祥瑞，1911–1996), but few details were given except that Li used to visit Prof. Gong furtively, and when he did, he’d park his car some distance away, and walk to Gong’s residence in order not to attract attention. Wang Tiancheng’s recollection and reflection below give us some space to ponder.
We also know that, after graduating from the Law Department at Peking University, Li Keqiang became a CCP Youth League cadre and rose rapidly, while studying economics for a doctorate degree from Li Yining (厉以宁, 1930–2023), perhaps the best known and most authoritative economist who guided China’s market reforms in the 1980s and 1990s. What’s worth contemplating for China watchers is that, with his education, aspiration, and Premiership, Li Keqiang has failed to bring meaningful changes to China. I further suspect that, for most part of his career as a high-ranking Communist Party official, he has been probably just as helpless as a private Chinese citizen (see “A Dog Day’s Afternoon: 19th EU-China Summit, 2 June 2017” on page 13 of CHINA AT THE GATES: A NEW POWER AUDIT OF EU-CHINA RELATIONS). Blaming Xi Jinping for all of it is not enough.
What leaves me with a real sense of loss is that, while the deposed former Secretary General Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳) at least managed to leave us an autobiography of sort, I doubt Li Keqiang has left any memoir behind. As high up as he is, writing his private thoughts can be a dangerous undertaking, and he might have lived in even greater fear than the average Chinese. What he leaves behind, it seems to me, is a near-perfect trajectory of the last 40 years of China, and the demise of which was intrinsic and inevitable, a hope that has never meant to be realized. It was something his predecessor Wen Jiabao warned the Party, the Chinese people, and the rest of the world about.
— Yaxue Cao, editor of China Change
Former Premier Li Keqiang’s sudden passing stirred up widespread commemorations in China, and it is an important barometer of popular sentiment in our time. I met Li Keqiang once in the late 1980s, and would like to share a part of him that I got to see.
At the time, I had just started the graduate program in the Law Department at Peking University, majoring in Constitutional Law, and I was helping Professor Gong Xiangrui with an article that was not permitted to be published in China.
One afternoon, another graduate student and I went to Prof. Gong’s home. He asked us to stay a bit longer to say hello to Li Keqiang who would be visiting. At the time, Li was presiding over the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League, and we all knew that he would likely become one of the top leaders of the country, if not the highest leader.
In about 20 minutes, Li Keqiang arrived. He wore a dark blue Zhongshan suit (中山装), all buttoned up. Prof. Gong made a brief introduction between us, and Li greeted us, waving a hand courteously.
His hand waving left an indelible impression on me to this day. It exudes ambition and success, the kind you see from a leading man. Then we took our leave as Prof. Gong told us to, and he and Li Keqiang went into his study. My point is not about my meeting Li Keqiang, but his relationship with Prof. Gong, who at the time was one of the most influential, liberal-minded intellectuals in Beijing, and whose home was frequented by younger and like-minded intellectuals and students.
Prof. Gong had been among the first batch of students sent by the government of the Republic of China in Nanjing to study abroad. He studied constitutional law and administrative law in Britain and France. He had been targeted in the Communist Party’s political campaigns one after another starting in 1949. Among the professors I had at the time, he was undoubtedly the one most knowledgeable about the political system of the West.
When still a student, Li Keqiang, along with Liu Yong’an (刘庸安) and the late Yang Baikui (杨百揆), assisted Prof. Gong in writing the most important work of his life, “Comparative Constitutional Law and Administrative Law” (《比较宪法与行政法》). Also under the guidance of Prof. Gong, Li Keqiang co-translated into Chinese “The Due Process of Law” by Baron Alfred Denning. He was also a co-translator of Denning’s “The Discipline of Law”. At the time, these were books new to the Chinese that introduced them to the modern concept of the rule of law.
I have read neither, but Prof. Gong’s Comparative Constitutional Law and Administrative Law had a big impact on me. It is completely free of the communist ideology, and with palpable passion, it explains the basic principles that construct a modern political system such as separation of powers, political parties, the rule of law, and etc. It wasn’t an easy read for me at the time, but it was one of the earliest books of my personal enlightenment. With a limited number of good books around, I read it many times. In the epilogue, Prof. Gong acknowledged students who assisted him, and the first name listed was Li Keqiang.
Later Li Keqiang was promoted to the Central Committee of the CCP Youth League, but he kept his interaction with Prof. Gong. I have no way to know how deeply Li was influenced by Prof. Gong’s book, which he helped with, and by the principles of the Western constitutional government it laid out, let alone how he reconciled his knowledge with his surroundings as he quickly ascended and eventually became the No. 2 leader of China.
However, perhaps it is not too far-fetched for me to speculate that the fact that the blue-blood Xi Jinping was, in the end, favored over Li Keqiang to be the paramount leader might have something to do with Li’s close association with liberal intellectuals during his student years. Li Xiannian (李先念), one of the CCP’s founding members, once said, “Zhao Ziyang has learned too much from the West, and we have to be vigilant about him.” This kind of distrust apparently was applicable to Li Keqiang as well.
Over the past week or so, people have been divided on whether we [the opponents of the CCP rule] should mourn and commemorate Li Keqiang. I, for one, write down these words to commemorate that young man who pursued new knowledge and was drawn to a beloved teacher on the shore of Weiming Lake (未名湖) at Peking University. I see the overflowing condolences as a form of revolt, a revolt against the other man who is ignorant and hubristic. Revolt is what’s needed in our time. And we only discover the possibilities, the techniques, and the power of revolt when we attempt it for ourselves.
Wang Tiancheng (王天成) is the President of Institute for China’s Democratic Transition, Editor-in-chief of China Journal of Democracy. He is based in Philadelphia.
This article first appeared in China Change, and is republished with permission.