In a solemn and heavily controlled procession, a multitude of individuals congregated near a state funeral home in China to bid a final farewell to the former premier, Li Keqiang, as he was laid to rest. The road leading to the funeral home was meticulously guarded by both plainclothes and uniformed police, who not only managed the flow of traffic but also maintained vigilance to deter any presence of unauthorized or foreign media.
The public’s opportunity to pay tribute to Li has been subject to stringent regulation, reflecting the government’s concern regarding the potential for an overwhelming and emotionally charged outpouring of grief, which could potentially serve as a catalyst for social unrest.
Nonetheless, despite the orchestrated censorship efforts aimed at curbing “excessive” expressions of bereavement and congregations, residents of Li’s hometown, Hefei, located in Anhui province, defied these restrictions. Over the weekend, hundreds of mourners, recognizing Li as one of their most esteemed sons, placed flowers in a heartfelt display of respect.
It’s noteworthy that historical precedent illustrates how the demise of notable figures such as former premier Zhou Enlai in 1976 and Hu Yaobang, a former CCP general secretary, in 1989, evoked widespread and passionate expressions of grief that ultimately evolved into significant protests.
In more recent history, the tragic passing of Li Wenliang, a courageous Covid whistleblower in 2020, and a fatal apartment fire in Xinjiang in 2022, incited spontaneous public expressions of grief. The latter event eventually led to the “white paper” protests that reverberated across multiple cities, illustrating the powerful undercurrents of public sentiment.
As a mark of homage, the flags at Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, as well as at government and party offices throughout China and its diplomatic outposts worldwide, were lowered to half-mast. This gesture of respect and mourning for Li Keqiang was palpable against the backdrop of a somber, fog-laden morning.
Li’s passing on Friday, attributed to a heart attack, marked the conclusion of his journey at the age of 68. While state media had indicated that cremation would occur on Thursday, specific details regarding funeral arrangements remained undisclosed. Historically, retired high-ranking officials briefly lie in state, offering an opportunity for top leaders to pay their respects by presenting wreaths of white flowers, symbolizing the traditional color of mourning.
Li Keqiang had played a pivotal role in guiding China’s economy for a decade. However, his influence waned after being excluded from the Communist Party’s powerful politburo standing committee in October 2022. Remarkably, he relinquished his official duties in March 2023, even though he was two years short of the informal retirement age of 70.
His tenure was characterized by confronting numerous crises, including the formidable challenge posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. He was viewed as an alternative voice in contrast to the increasingly authoritative leadership of Xi Jinping, the paramount party leader. When Li ascended to the role of premier in 2013, the second most influential position in China’s hierarchy, there were aspirations of nurturing private enterprise and promoting a flourishing free market.
However, Li’s authority dwindled as Xi consolidated his grip on power, steering China with a centralized approach that extended to the realms of economy and society. Xi secured a third five-year term as party leader, installing loyalists in prominent party positions. The position of premier transitioned to Li Qiang, the party secretary for Shanghai, who lacked the national-level experience that Li Keqiang possessed and candidly stated that his responsibilities revolved around implementing Xi’s directives.