TAIPEI, TAIWAN — China held a low-key funeral for former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Thursday, deploying large numbers of police to restrict access to the funeral home and the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery, where state funerals are normally held and many top leaders are buried.

Despite government efforts to prevent an outpouring of grief, which it sees potentially leading to social unrest, hundreds of people reportedly gathered near the cemetery to pay tribute to Li.

Images on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, showed small crowds of people, wearing black, gathered by the side of the road to record videos of cars, which supposedly carried Li’s coffin, driving toward the cemetery.

Analysts say some Chinese people’s attempts to commemorate Li reflect discontent over Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s hardline control over the country, and the secrecy surrounding Li’s death is part of precautions Beijing has taken to prevent the event from turning into a movement challenging Xi’s authority.

“People are showing their frustration and discontent toward Xi by publicly mourning Li’s passing,” Yaqiu Wang, research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House, told VOA by phone. “The Chinese government definitely wants to prevent people from expressing such emotion publicly.” 

Li died of a heart attack Friday, only months after stepping down as Chinese premier. While he was the second most powerful man in China between 2013 and 2023, the Chinese government surrounded his death with secrecy.

No details were released about the ceremony before Thursday’s funeral, and a brief official notice said only that his remains would be cremated in Beijing and flags would be flown at half-staff across the country to mourn the passing of “an extraordinary leader.” On Thursday, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency published two photos showing the flag at Tiananmen Square in Beijing being flown at half-staff to mourn Li.

Some analysts say the lack of information about how the Chinese government might handle Li’s passing fits how Beijing handles sensitive events like the passing of a former top official.

"This fits into a pattern of not giving out much information, if we think about how little information has been given out about top officials who have been stripped of their power,” Jeff Wasserstrom, a historian of modern China at the University of California, Irvine, told VOA in a phone interview.

Other experts say the low-key nature of Li’s funeral follows Beijing’s long tradition of handling the deaths of high-profile officials.

“What has been done in the case of Li Keqiang is almost the same as what has been done for former Chinese Premier Li Peng, who passed away in 2019,” Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, told VOA by phone.

Even though the handling of Li’s death is “business as usual,” Yang said the lack of transparency around the cause of Li’s death, despite official media citing a heart attack as the cause, increases public skepticism toward the government’s handling of his death.

“Many people think there needs to be more transparency, but due to the practical blackout on anything, many people feel like the authorities aren’t as forthcoming and it accentuates the disjuncture between public sentiments and the stability maintenance imperative,” he added.

Online censorship

Within hours of the official announcement of Li’s death last Friday, China’s online censorship protocols went into effect, filtering out or removing any comments that tried to celebrate Li’s achievements. In the end, only comments like “Have a good journey” or "You will live forever" were allowed on social media posts related to Li’s death.

In addition to censoring comments, Chinese social media platforms also blocked searches of a love song by Malaysian singer Fish Leong, Unfortunately, It’s Not You, which has become popular among Chinese netizens whenever a top leader dies. They often share the song to lament the fact that Xi is the one who gets to live on.

Apart from online censorship, the Chinese government also removed details about U.S. President Joe Biden’s condolences on Li’s passing from the official readout of the meeting between Biden and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, even though the White House readout preserved the relevant detail.

Wasserstrom said Beijing’s efforts to censor communications related to Li’s passing is not so much about what he did during the years of his premiership but rather some things that he said in the past, which could be framed as opposition to Xi’s rule.

“If you look at all the positions that Li had taken, you don’t come up with a figure who represents a radically different path,” he told VOA. “But if you pick and choose very carefully, certain things that he said, such as the comment about 'Heaven is looking at what humans are doing,' can make him seem more of a symbol of differences from Xi.”

Lamenting the loss of ‘alternative China’

Despite the Chinese government’s attempt to prevent Li’s death from snowballing into a moment of public defiance, some Chinese citizens still try to leverage the limited space in civil society to pay respect to Li since he died.

Hundreds of Chinese citizens lined up outside Li’s childhood home in Hefei, Anhui province, to pay respects. They left yellow and white bouquets of chrysanthemums, often used in Chinese culture during mourning, at the makeshift memorials and repeated some popular phrases Li said on handwritten notes. Similar scenes were spotted in public spaces in other Chinese cities, including Shenzhen and Chengdu.

In an image circulating widely on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, a Chinese citizen wrote “The Yellow River and Yangtze River will not flow backward. Have a good journey, the good premier for the people.”

Wang said the public mourners have focused on Li’s unfulfilled goals, which represent an alternative China.

“The reason why people lament the passing of Li is because he was very different from Xi," she told VOA. “Many people view the things that Li didn’t fulfill as the China that 'could have been better.’”

Wang and Wasserstrom both said the outburst of public mourning shows that instead of being “brainwashed,” as some critics of China like to characterize China’s civil society, Chinese citizens are still using the limited space in civil society to voice their opinions.

“These quieter yet noteworthy moments remind us that China is not a country of brainwashed automation,” Wasserstrom said. “It's not a country where the only expressions online are nationalistic parroting back of the official line. These Chinese citizens are individuals finding ways to express their feelings about a range of issues.”

The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Voice of America.

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TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)

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