Li Keqiang, Former Chinese Premier, Dies of Heart Attack at 68

Over the past year, the authorities have been quick to quash signs of dissent, especially as China grapples with economic challenges, a housing crisis and high youth unemployment. Late last year, residents and students in various Chinese cities held protests against Covid restrictions that were 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 on Friday carried echoes of the death in 1989 of Hu Yaobang, a relatively liberal former Communist Party leader who succumbed to a heart attack during a party meeting. His death was met with a wave of public grief that grew into the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests.

But Mr. Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, has sought to exercise tight control over social media, universities and society at large. Mr. Li was not seen as the same 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 official obituary and 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. But, he added: “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.