Li was born in Zhucheng, Weifang, Shandong in December 1955. He graduated from Fudan University in Shanghai, where he majored in journalism. After graduating, he began working for China Central Television (CCTV), where he operated cameras and was part of reporting teams. As a journalism, he focused on politics, presumably putting him in contact with senior figures of the party and government. He joined the Communist Party of China in March 1986. Li worked his way up the administrative ranks of CCTV, and was eventually named vice president. He was instrumental in kickstarting the Oriental Horizon program, and for much of the 1990s was responsible for overseeing the investigative journalism program Point.
In 2000, Li began his foray in government, being named the deputy head of State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). In May 2002, he was appointed the Deputy Head of the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of China. He was the chief official spokesperson of the 17th Party Congress in October 2007. He remained deputy head of propaganda until October 2009, when he was appointed the Deputy Minister of Public Security.