‘Other leaders are corrupt’: Li Keqiang mourning poses challenge for Beijing

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Hundreds of mourners have flocked to Li Keqiang’s childhood home to pay their respects to a reformist politician many saw as the “people’s premier”, creating a potential political challenge for Chinese president Xi Jinping.

The popular outpouring for Li, who died suddenly last week aged 68, was mirrored in other cities and on Chinese social media, with many people contrasting the late premier’s relatively down-to-earth style with that of his more aloof colleagues.

The rare public outburst of grief for Li, who was largely sidelined by Xi while in office, presents a delicate situation for China’s ruling Communist party as it contends with a lagging economic recovery and geopolitical tensions, analysts said.

“We have a lot of other leaders who are corrupt but he wasn’t one of them,” said one woman who attended the same school as Li and had joined a crowd of mourners, watched over by rows of guards, placing flowers around the home where Li spent part of his childhood in Hefei, Anhui province.

“He cared for the poorest of society,” she added, wiping back tears.

A trained economist who headed Xi’s cabinet for a decade between 2013 and 2023 before he was replaced in March, Li was once seen as a possible contender for president. During his tenure as premier, China’s second-highest role, Li advocated for market-oriented reform and anti-poverty programmes. But he was gradually sidelined under Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

The death of a senior leader is often a sensitive moment for the Communist party, which must balance paying respects to former officials and defining their legacy to the party with preventing the occasion from becoming a lightning rod for protests or an opportunity to draw unfavourable comparisons with the current leadership. 

“Sometimes to praise the path not taken is to make a comment on the path that was taken,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a fellow at the Atlantic Council Global China Hub. “For some, Li Keqiang represented a relatively more laissez-faire attitude towards state-society relations, and he stood for allowing more space for societal and market forces.”

Xi faced a similar situation in November when former president Jiang Zemin, who presided over a period of high growth and relative economic openness, died aged 96.

Jiang’s death coincided with the outbreak of “white paper protests” in major cities across the country against Xi’s stringent zero-Covid lockdowns, where demonstrators held up pieces of blank paper in an allusion to censorship and intolerance of criticism of the pandemic controls. Soon thereafter, Xi abandoned the policy.

At Li’s former residence in Hefei, an elderly woman angrily claimed that the provincial and city governments should be doing more to honour the senior leader’s passing. Beijing has yet to announce plans for Li’s state funeral, while after Jiang died, the party established a mourning committee chaired by Xi and held a grand memorial service at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. 

Bystanders were reluctant to discuss the current government. “We can’t say much because of the overall situation here. All we can say is, people love Premier Li,” the elderly woman said.

At Jiuzi village, an hour and a half from Hefei and the site of Li’s ancestral home, hundreds of people added bouquets to a sea of flowers in front of a simple, thatched-roof farmhouse. Many had driven from distant provinces to honour an official they described as the “people’s premier”.

One bouquet, donated by a construction company near Hefei, quoted a line that Li used early last year during the coronavirus pandemic to try to reassure investors that China would not close its doors to the outside world.

“The Yangtze River and Yellow River will not flow in reverse,” it said. “China’s open door will definitely not be closed.”

 The card concluded: “Good premier of the people, rest in peace.”

Financial Times

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