Wan Li: Reformer and last of China's 'Eight Immortals'

Then National People's Congress (NPC) Chairman Wan Li (left) chatting with Chinese President Yang Shangkun at the opening of the NPC on March 15, 1993. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Wan Li was the last of the Chinese Communist Party's revolutionary elders known as the "Eight Immortals".

Wan died of an illness in Beijing on Wednesday, state-run CCTV reported, calling his death "a great loss to the party and the state." He was 98.

Wan joined the party in 1936 and rose to chairman of the National People's Congress, the country's top legislature. He had a hand in some of the country's earliest economic reforms after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, overseeing the dismantling of farming communes as party boss in the eastern province of Anhui.

The Shandong native was among a handful of one-time revolutionaries like Deng Xiaoping who suffered during Mao's Cultural Revolution only to re-emerge and lead the country's economic resurgence in the 1980s and 90s. He was commonly included among the so-called Eight Immortals, though opinions have differed on the group's membership.

He was seen as a close ally of Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party chief purged after supporting students whose protests were suppressed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Wan was on a trip to North America when the pro-democracy movement broke out and returned home to profess support for Deng.

"Wan Li was one of the earliest reformers inside the party," said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian who previously worked at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "He belonged to the same reform camp as Zhao Ziyang did."

Civil War

Born in Dongping, Shandong, Wan held administrative positions during China's war with Japan and the subsequent civil war between the Communist Party and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists. He rose to national politics after the 1949 founding of the People's Republic of China, serving as urban construction minister and vice mayor of Beijing, before being purged during the Cultural Revolution.

Like Deng, Wan was rehabilitated toward the end of Mao's reign, becoming Beijing's party chief and then the railway minister. He helped carry out Deng's "reform and opening up" policy as Anhui party chief and vice premier, before taking the top legislative job. His contributions to agricultural reform were credited with increasing crop production and immortalized in the Chinese saying, "If you want to eat rice, please look to Wan Li." He retired in 1993.

Wan played tennis and bridge. His tennis partners included former United States President George HW Bush, who served as chief of the US liaison office in China before the two countries established diplomatic ties, as well as former Australian Prime Minister Robert Hawke, according to a Xinhua report. Wan played tennis with Bush after the latter became president and visited China.

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