Wan Li, reformist party elder and former NPC chairman, dies aged 98

He was loyal supporter of the late leader Deng Xiaoping’s market-oriented reforms and economic pragmatism, but his role in 1989 democracy movement remains controversial

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 July, 2015, 4:59pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 July, 2015, 2:45am

Wan Li


He was a reformist Communist Party elder who played a critical role in ushering in the country's market era but largely disappeared from public view after retiring in the early 1990s.

Wan Li , a former chairman of the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee and supporter of late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's economic pragmatism, died in Beijing yesterday. He was 98.

Wan gained national fame by initiating the post-Mao Zedong agrarian reforms known as the household responsibility system in 1977, shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution.

As party boss of Anhui , Wan oversaw the break-up of collectivised farms in the province and allowed the land to be assigned to individual farmers. He also relaxed controls on farming so growers could expand their crop varieties and sell surpluses for their own profit.

His experiments in Anhui were copied by then-Sichuan party boss Zhao Ziyang - who would go on to become premier - and were later rolled out nationwide by Deng.

Wan and Zhao were immortalised in the folk saying: "If you want to eat rice, look for Wan Li, or Zhao Ziyang."

Wan was also the first senior leader to admit that up to four million people starved to death in Anhui during the Great Leap Forward in the early 1960s. In an interview in the China Economic Times in 1998, Wan blamed Mao for creating the disaster.

Born in Shandong , Wan joined the party in 1936 and was an administrator during the Sino-Japanese war and the civil war. He worked directly under Deng in the Southwest Military and Administrative Committee in the early days of the People's Republic before moving to the national stage in 1952 to become a vice-minster of railways and later its minister.

Wan was a close associate of former reformist party leader Hu Yaobang and was made a member of the party's
Secretariat in 1980, when Hu was secretary general. Wan was also made vice-premier that year to help Zhao, who was by then the country's premier.

He retired in 1993 as NPC chairman, having held the post since 1988.

While his reformist views were clear, Wan's role in the 1989 pro-democracy movement was ambiguous. On a trip to Canada and the United States during the Tiananmen Square protests, Wan made speeches sympathetic to the student movement.

Student protesters planned to welcome him back to Beijing in late May. Instead, he returned to Shanghai, where he was reportedly met by Jiang Zemin , the then-party secretary general-in-waiting.

Reports suggested Jiang persuaded Wan, who was immediately put under temporary house arrest, to support Deng. He expressed conditional support for the crackdown on May 27.

In 2004, he called for democratic reform of the party's decision-making system. Reports also suggested he called for Zhao's rehabilitation.

Wan's son, Wan Boao, said his father died from illness at 12.55pm.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said Wan was dedicated to advancing China's reform and opening up.