The official Xinhua News Agency said that Li died Monday of an unspecified illness.
Li was a cautious, uninspiring figure but a keen political infighter who spent two decades at the pinnacle of power before retiring in 2002. He leaves behind a legacy of extended and broad-based economic growth coupled with authoritarian political controls.
While broadly disliked among the public, he oversaw China’s reemergence from post-Tiananmen isolation into rising global diplomatic and economic clout, a development he celebrated in often defiantly nationalistic public statements.
“Ridding themselves from the predicament of imperialist bullying, humiliation and oppression, the calamity-trodden Chinese people have since stood up,” Li said in 1995 in a speech for the Oct. 1 anniversary of the 1949 revolution.
One reminder of Li will likely stand for ages to come: During his final years in power, Li pushed through approval for his pet project, the gargantuan and controversial $22 billion Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, which forced 1.3 million people to leave their homes as they were swallowed up by its enormous reservoir.
Li stepped down as premier in 1998, becoming chairman of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament.
He retired from the party’s seven-member ruling Standing Committee in 2002 as part of a long-planned handover of power to a younger generation of leaders headed by Hu Jintao.
In his later years, Li rarely appeared in public and was usually seen only at official gatherings aimed at displaying unity such as in 2007 at the 80th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army.