Li, an ethnic Hakka, was born the son of Li Shixun and Zhoa Juntao, friends of Zhou Enlai and his wife, Deng Yingchao. His father, who like Zhou and Deng was a Communist revolutionary, was killed by the Nationalists in 1931, and Li was adopted by Zhou and Deng. He joined the party in 1945.
He studied hydroelectric engineering at the Moscow Power Institute for six years and was chairman of the Chinese student association in the USSR. From 1955 through 1966 he worked at state power companies in northeast China. During the Great Cultural Revolution starting in 1966, he was deputy director and then director of the Beijing Electric Power Administration. Named to the party's Central Committee in 1982, he became a deputy premier the following year. In 1985, he was elected a member of the Politburo and the party's Secretariat.
He became China's fourth premier in 1988, but in 1990, he lost control of economic policy to Zhu Rongji. He is widely regarded as unpopular and is blamed for the crackdown on the Student Democracy Movement which resulted in the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
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