Liu received his university education in Moscow, USSR in 1921 and joined the CPC in the same year. He went back to China in 1922, and led several railway workers' strikes. During the period of 1925 to 1926, he led many anti-imperialsim movements and strikes in Hubei and Shanghai. In 1932 he became the CPC General Secretary of Fujian Province. Two years later Liu joined the Long March and was one of the supporters of Mao Zedong during the Zunyi Meeting. In 1936 he was the General Secretary of Northern China, leading the anti-Japanese movements in that area. Liu was elected as the CPC General Secretary in 1943. During the Civil War, Liu was the Deputy President of the CPC.
After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, Liu was elected as the president of PRC by the Second and Third National People's Congress. Liu contributed to the economic developments of Mainland China in the early 1950s. In the 1960s he also helped the country to recover from the economic disaster caused by the Great Leap Forward movement started by Mao Zedong. He was humiliated and killed during the Cultural Revolution led by Mao and the Gang of Four.