Li Xiannian
Li in 1954
3rd President of the People's Republic of China
In office
18 June 1983 – 8 April 1988
PremierZhao Ziyang
Li Peng
Vice PresidentUlanhu
LeaderDeng Xiaoping
Preceded byLiu Shaoqi
(as State Chairman)
Ye Jianying
(as Head of State)
Succeeded byYang Shangkun
5th Chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference
In office
6 April 1988 – 21 June 1992
Preceded byDeng Yingchao
Succeeded byLi Ruihuan
Other office held
Vice Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party
In office
19 August 1977 – 15 June 1982
ChairmanHua Guofeng
Hu Yaobang
Vice Premier of the People's Republic of China
In office
27 September 1954 – 10 September 1980
PremierZhou Enlai
Hua Guofeng
3rd Minister of Finance
In office
29 September 1954 – 22 June 1970
PremierZhou Enlai
Preceded byDeng Xiaoping
Succeeded byYin Chengzhen
Member of the
National People's Congress
In office
15 September 1954 – 25 March 1988
ConstituencyHubei At-large
Personal details
Born(1909-06-23)23 June 1909
Hong'an County, Hubei, Qing China
Died21 June 1992(1992-06-21) (aged 82)
Beijing, China
Political partyChinese Communist Party (joined in 1927)
Spouse(s)Shang Xiaoping (尚小平) (div)[1]
Lin Jiamei
Children4, including Li Xiaolin[2]
Chinese name

Li Xiannian (pronounced [lì ɕjɛ́nnjɛ̂n]; 23 June 1909 – 21 June 1992) was a Chinese Communist military and political leader, president of the People's Republic of China from 1983 to 1988 under paramount leader Deng Xiaoping[3] and then chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference from 1988 until his death. He was a full member of the Politburo from 1956 to 1987, and of its Standing Committee from 1977 to 1987.[4][5]

Li worked as an apprentice carpenter in his teenage years to support his family. He joined the Communist Party in December 1927 and became a soldier in the Chinese Red Army. After studying at the Military–Political University and the Central Party School, he became an influential and successful military commander during the Second Sino–Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War, distinguishing himself in the Huaihai campaign.[4]

After the PRC was established, he served as Governor and Party Secretary of his native Hubei Province from 1949 to 1954, and then joined the central leadership in Beijing, serving as Minister of Finance (1954–1970) and Vice Premier (1954–1982). He supported Mao Zedong's designated successor, Hua Guofeng, and was named Vice Chairman of the Party (1977–1982).

One of the Eight Elders of the Party, he was considered the most leftist among them, both politically and economically. Li played a key role in blocking privatizations and maintaining state control in many sectors of the economy. He promoted classical Communist political and cultural values through his patronage of theorists such as Hu Qiaomu and Deng Liqun, and was instrumental in purging the liberals Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. He enthusiastically advocated for military suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.


Early career

Li in the People's Liberation Army during the Civil War (1946)

Born in Hong'an, Hubei, Li came from a poor family and spent his teenage years working at a carpenter's shop. He joined the Chinese Communist Party in December 1927, and served as an army captain and political commissar for the Chinese Red Army during the Long March. He was a military cadre in Zhang Guotao West Route Army.[6]: 476 

After arriving in Yan'an, he studied at the Counter-Japanese Military and Political University and at the Central Party School. Here he was under pressure, as other military cadres who served on the West Route Army. He fought in both the Second Sino–Japanese War, where he was sent to the Hubei-Henan Region to lead the guerrilla and establish an Anti-Japanese base area,[6]: 477  and the Chinese Civil War, especially in the Central Plains, and played a key role in many Communist victories, most significantly in the Huai–Hai Campaign.[4]

Mao-era China

Li with Nicolae Ceaușescu prior to the 30th anniversary of the liberation of Romania, 22 August 1974

After the Communists' victory in China, Li was appointed Governor and Party Secretary of his native Hubei Province from 1949 to 1954, and he also served as the commander and political commissar of the province's military garrison. Additionally, he was Vice Chairman of the PRC's Military Commission for South–Central China (overseeing military and public security forces in Guangdong, Hainan, Henan, Hubei and Hunan).

In 1954, Li joined the central leadership in Beijing and became China's Minister of Finance. He was also appointed Vice Premier for the entire period of 1954–1982.

During the Cultural Revolution, Li was a part of the February Countercurrent which criticized the Cultural Revolution for creating social disorder and undermining China's leadership.[7]: 154  Despite losing his job as Finance Minister in 1970, he nonetheless enjoyed Zhou Enlai's protection and was the only civilian official to serve without interruption alongside Zhou throughout the 1966–1976 Cultural Revolution decade.[8]: xviii  In 1976, Li played an instrumental role in destroying the Gang Of Four. After the demise of the Gang, Li was appointed Vice Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and a member of the Central Military Commission.

Post-Mao politician

When Chairman Hua Guofeng rose to leadership after the death of Mao Zedong, Li became Hua's chief economic adviser and one of his main backers, along with Generals Wang Dongxing and Chen Xilian. If Hua had been successful in his efforts to achieve supreme power, Li would have become one of the most powerful officials in China, but Li's political career stalled when Deng Xiaoping eclipsed Hua as China's "Paramount leader". For the rest of his career, Li complained that his own achievements during the brief Hua interregnum were not sufficiently recognized as the basis of the progress experienced in China during the 1980s.

Li was described as an "orthodox" or "Soviet-style" communist and was a firm believer in central planning and sociopolitical conformity, so disliked Deng Xiaoping's more radical economic reform ideas. He had in fact been largely responsible for drafting the short-lived Ten Year Plan of 1978 which attempted to build a Soviet-style economy based around heavy industry and energy production. Li's ideas enjoyed strong support among some sections of the Chinese top leadership; General Yu Qiuli and his "oil clique", for example, fully supported Li.

However, Deng quickly terminated these ideas and instituted his own "go slow" approach that involved gradually allowing the development of light industry and consumer goods.[8]: xviii [9] He also went about assigning government posts to younger men who were followers of his ideas. One of these was Premier Zhao Ziyang, whom Li strongly opposed for being too willing to import Western ideas and move away from a planned economy. According to Zhao, Li "hated me because I was implementing Deng Xiaoping's reforms, but since it was difficult for him to openly oppose Deng, he made me the target of his opposition."[8]: xviii–xix 


Li with his wife Lin Jiamei and Ronald Reagan (1985)
Li as President, 1985

In 1983, after the passing of a new Constitution, Li was appointed President of China at the age of 74. Although according to the 1982 Constitution the role of President was "largely ceremonial", it recognized Li's status as a respected Party elder and a member of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, and Li himself went on to forcefully use his still very substantial influence to support leftist policies. In 1984, Li met with U.S. President Ronald Reagan during the latter's visit to China, notably discussing the status of Taiwan with the President.[10] Li visited the United States in July 1985, the first time the head of state of the People's Republic of China made such a visit.

As the decade progressed, Deng Xiaoping, always an opponent of lifetime tenure in office, gradually convinced most of the party elders to retire. Li stepped down as president in 1988 and was succeeded by Yang Shangkun. Li was then named Chairman of the National Committee of the CPPCC. He was a strong supporter of Jiang Zemin's rise to power,[citation needed] and during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Li was one of the hardline Party elders who pushed for a strong response to the demonstrations and supported Premier Li Peng's desire to use military force to suppress the protests.[5][11][12] Li continued to serve in government until his death in 1992, one year before his term expire.


Li had four children. His youngest daughter, Li Xiaolin, is the President of the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. She is a member of the CPPCC national committee.[13][14]

Death and later commemoration

Li died on 21 June 1992 at the age of 82, two days shy of his 83rd birthday.[15] His funeral was held on 27 June 1992 and was attended by members of the Politburo Standing Committee. After the service, Li was cremated.[16]

Awards and honors


  1. ^ Rittenberg, Sidney; Bennett, Amanda (2001). The Man Who Stayed Behind. Duke University Press. p. 103. ISBN 9780822326670.
  2. ^ Chen, Shanbin (19 May 2015). 李先念的夫人林佳媚简历 林佳楣生了几个孩子. lishiquwen. Archived from the original on 24 December 2019. Retrieved 16 January 2017.
  3. ^ Li, Xiaobing (2012). China at War: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 226. ISBN 978-1-59884-415-3.
  4. ^ a b c Li Xiannian (1909–1992), in Christopher R. Lew, Edwin Pak-wah Leung: Historical Dictionary of the Chinese Civil War, p.p. 120-121, Scarecrow Press, 2013
  5. ^ a b Holley, David. "Li Xiannian, Ex-President of China, Dies at 83: Old Guard: He was one of a ruling clique of ‘8 elders’ who ordered the army to repress the pro-democracy movement in 1989". Los Angeles Times, 23 June 1992.
  6. ^ a b Gao, Hua (2018). How the Red Sun Rose: The Origins and Development of the Yan'an Rectification Movement, 1930–1945. Chinese University of Hong Kong Press. ISBN 9789629968229.
  7. ^ Hou, Li (2021). Building for Oil: Daqing and the Formation of the Chinese Socialist State. Harvard-Yenching Institute monograph series. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Asia Center. ISBN 978-0-674-26022-1.
  8. ^ a b c MacFarquhar, Roderick. "Foreword" in Zhao Ziyang (2009). Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 1-4391-4938-0
  9. ^ "China marks 100th birth anniversary of former president Li Xiannian". Government of the People's Republic of China. 24 June 2009. Archived from the original on 28 November 2012. Retrieved 15 March 2012.
  10. ^ Anderson, Kurt (7 May 1984). "History Beckons Again". Time. Archived from the original on 18 January 2005. Retrieved 19 August 2011.
  11. ^ Wu Wei, Why China's Political Reforms Failed. The Diplomat, 4 June 2015.
  12. ^ Brandt, Loren; Rawski, Thomas G. (2008). China's Great Economic Transformation. Cambridge University Press. p. 102. ISBN 978-0-521-88557-7. In economic policy, the most important elders were Li Xiannian and Chen Yun.
  13. ^ 'I'll break your legs if you go into business': former president's career advice to children, SCMP, 17 March 2014
  14. ^ Prominent Chinese Families,
  15. ^ Dunn, Sheryl Wu (23 June 1992). "Li Xiannian, China Ex-President And Rural Economist, Dies at 82". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 November 2015.
  16. ^ "Simple Memorial Service for Former President Li Xiannian". Associated Press News. 27 June 1992. Retrieved 8 November 2015.
  17. ^ 齐奥塞斯库总统盛宴欢迎李先念主席 宾主共赞中罗两党两国人民真挚友谊 齐奥塞斯库授予李先念“罗马尼亚社会主义共和国之星”一级勋章. People's Daily. 1984-08-29: 1.

Further reading

Political offices New title Governor of Hubei 1949–1954 Succeeded byLiu Zihou Preceded byDeng Xiaoping Minister of Finance of the People's Republic of China 1954–1970 Succeeded byZhang Jifu Preceded byZhang Chunqiao First-ranking Vice Premier of the People's Republic of China 1976–1977 Succeeded byDeng Xiaoping Preceded byYe Jianyingas Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress President of the People's Republic of China 1983–1988 Succeeded byYang Shangkun Preceded byDeng Yingchao Chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference 1988–1992 Succeeded byLi Ruihuan Party political offices New title Secretary of the CCP Hubei Committee 1949–1954 Succeeded byWang Renzhong Preceded byYe Jianying Vice Chairman of the Chinese Communist PartyServed alongside: Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, Zhao Ziyang, Ye Jianying, Hua Guofeng 1977–1982 Post abolished Order of precedence Preceded byZhao Ziyangas Premier(4th ranked) Orders of precedence in the People's Republic of China(President of China; 5th ranked) 1982–1985 Succeeded byChen Yunas First Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection(6th ranked) Preceded byZhao Ziyangas Premier(3rd ranked) Orders of precedence in the People's Republic of China(President of China; 4th ranked) 1985–1987 Succeeded byChen Yunas First Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection(5th ranked) Preceded byWan Lias Chairman of the NPC Standing Committee(6th ranked) Orders of precedence in the People's Republic of China(Chairman of the CPPCC National Committee; 7th ranked) 1989–1992 Succeeded byPeng Zhenas former Chairman of the NPC Standing Committee(8th ranked)