Wan Li (1 December 1916 – 15 July 2015) was a Chinese Communist revolutionary and politician. During a long administrative career in the People’s Republic of China, he served successively as Vice Premier, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), and a member of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Secretariat and its Politburo.
Wan joined the Communist Party of China in 1936 and led revolutionary and wartime resistance activities in his native Shandong province. After the founding of the communist state in 1949, Wan served in a series of government ministries, then worked as a member of the municipal leadership in Beijing.
He was purged during the Cultural Revolution, but was eventually rehabilitated and returned to work as party chief of Anhui province, where he led the implementation of successful agrarian reforms centered on the household-responsibility system.
In the 1980s, Wan became one of the leading moderate reformers in China’s top leadership, advocating for constitutional reforms, the strengthening of legislative institutions, and the abolition of ‘lifelong-terms’ of top political leaders. He was named head of the national legislature (i.e., the NPC) in 1988. He retired in 1993.
Wan was born to an impoverished family in Dongping County, Shandong province. Wan aspired to become educated from a young age, and was admitted to a provincial-run teacher’s college located in Qufu in 1939. After joining the school Wan founded a book club to study Marxist-Leninist works.
After the student-led December 9th Movement, revolutionary and anti-Japanese fervour spread across campuses all over China, motivating youth to take up the cause for the country’s future. Wan returned to his native Dongping County and became a part time teacher while devoting most of his time to the revolution and agitating for resistance against Japanese invaders.
Wan Li joined the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1936, and served in party administrative positions, many in Shandong province, from county level on up.
Wan led the party organization in his native Dongping County in between 1937 and 1938, Propaganda and Organization Department director in Taixi Prefecture in 1938-40, deputy head of propaganda for Western Shandong regional CPC committee in 1940, and Secretary of the party’s 2nd, 7th and 8th Prefectural Committees in the Hebei-Shandong-Henan Border Area in 1940-47.
In the last phases of the Civil War, Wan Li served as Secretary-General of the Border Area committee (1947–49).
After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Wan was named deputy director of the finance department of the Nanjing Municipality Military Control Committee, director of the Economic Department and Chief of the city Construction Bureau, all within a few months.
He served as Deputy Director of the CCP South-west Military and Administrative Committee’s Industrial Department (1949–52), where he would have encountered Deng Xiaoping, who was leading the southwest bureau at the time.
In 1952 Wan was transferred to begin work for the central authorities in Beijing. He shortly became the Vice Minister of Architectural Engineering (1953) followed by the post of Minister of Urban Construction (1955).
From 1958, he was a secretary of the Beijing Municipality CPC Committee (under First Secretary Peng Zhen) and vice mayor; in 1959 he took a leading role in directing the construction of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in preparation for the 10th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Wan Li gradually faded from public view after 1993, making occasional appearances but otherwise heeding his own view that retired politicians should not interfere with the workings of the party and state. Bo Yibo died in January 2007, leaving Wan Li as the sole living pre-revolutionary party elder.
Many historians have also classified Wan Li as one of the “Eight Immortals” of the Communist Party, i.e., elders with revolutionary experience who were called upon to make the most important decisions facing the Communist Party.
Wan Li died on 15 July 2015 in Beijing of an unspecified illness. In his official obituary, Wan Li was extolled as “an excellent Party member, a time-tested fighter for the communist cause, and an outstanding proletarian revolutionary, statesman and leader of the Party and the state.”
It also said that Wan was “loyal to the party, loyal to the people, and loyal to the socialist cause for his entire life […]” and that “he observed party discipline and preserved party unity”.
Wan’s official obituary numbered over 2,200 Chinese characters, half of the length of the obituary of second-generation stalwarts Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun, but far higher than the word count of the obituaries of former leader Hua Guofeng, and one-time Politburo Standing Committee members Liu Huaqing, and Huang Ju, who were each given a mere few hundred words.
The announcement of his death was the fifth item reported on the evening Xinwen Lianbo program; the announcement was made in the form of a “joint statement” by the top organs of the party and state, which is generally reserved for only the highest-ranked leaders.
On July 22, 2015, Wan’s memorial service was held at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery. On that day, flags flown at half-mast at Tiananmen Square and at government buildings.
President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping and the entire Politburo Standing Committee, except for Yu Zhengsheng, attended the memorial service. Former General Secretary Hu Jintao also attended.