How China Mourned Li Keqiang Online, Until Censors Intervened | ET REALITY


They posted videos on social media of the moment he promised China would remain open to the outside world. They shared photos of him, standing in ankle-deep mud, visiting flood victims. They even indicated the economic growth objective for the first year of his mandate: 7.5 percent.

The death on Friday of Li Keqiang, 68, sparked spontaneous mourning on the Internet. Li served as prime minister, China’s second-ranking official, for a decade until last March.

Among many Chinese, Li’s death produced a wave of nostalgia for what he represented: a time of greater economic possibility and openness to private business. The reaction was discordant and showed dissatisfaction in China with the leadership of Xi Jinping, China’s hardline leader who won an unprecedented third term last year after maneuvering to abolish the long-held two-term limit.

In post after post on social media, people praised Li more for what he stood for and said than for what he was able to achieve under Xi, who drove economic policymaking during Li’s time in office.

Mr. Li was arguably the least powerful prime minister in the world. History of the People’s Republic of China. The grief over his passing reflected the public’s sense of loss for an era of reform and growth that has been abandoned, and their deep sense of powerlessness in the China of Xi, the most authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong.

A post that circulated widely on several social media sites said that many Chinese saw themselves in Li: people “who have struggled for the past decade but have gradually lost ground.”

The most shared posts are short videos of Mr. Li promising that China’s door to the outside world would remain open: “Just like the Yangtze River and the Yellow River cannot go back.” Some of the videos were later removed or could not be shared after China’s censorship push was activated.

On the social media platform Weibo, many posts expressing shock at the suddenness of his death were censored. So were comments referring to him as “a good prime minister for the people” and “a great man.” The comments allowed were mostly along the lines of “rest in peace.”

For many people in China, Li’s death unleashed pent-up frustration, anger and anxiety over what they see as Xi’s mishandling of the economy. Xi attacked the private sector, undermining some of China’s most successful companies. He moved away from some of China’s biggest trading partners and toward countries like Russia, while replacing reformist leaders with loyalists. Xi focused the government’s attention more on ideology than economics.

To them, Li, who had degrees in law and economics, represented the pragmatic technocrats who lifted the country out of poverty in the 1990s and 2000s. They recited his Opening words at his first press conference in 2013 after becoming prime minister.

“We will be loyal to the Constitution, faithful to the people and take the wishes of the people as the direction of our government,” Mr. Li had said.

Commenting on his death, people said they could not believe that the national growth target then was 7.5 per cent. China’s economy missed its 5.5 percent target in 2022 and many analysts believe it will miss less ambitious targets this year.

They recited Mr. Li’s most famous quotes: “Power should not be arbitrary.” and “It is more difficult to touch interests than souls..”

A number of entrepreneurs and investors shared photos of themselves with Mr. Li, who was an advocate of entrepreneurship and innovation, when he visited their companies. They recalled that the government encouraged new products and new business models, and called them the golden days of entrepreneurship. “He left us suddenly,” wrote an Internet entrepreneur surnamed Ding. “And he took the golden age with him.”

They published photos of him. visiting wuhan in January 2020, when Covid devastated the city. Xi did not visit the country until nearly two months after the initial spread of the virus had been contained. They published photographs of Mr. Li visiting flood and earthquake victims. Mr. Xi is known for staying away from disaster scenes.

they also shared a set of photos of Mr. Li chatting friendly with other government leaders, contrasting those scenes with Mr. Xi’s bossy body language when he appears with his associates.

Some people expressed gratitude for Mr. Li’s honesty when, at a press conference in 2020, he noted that China might be the world’s second-largest economy, but there were 600 million people with a monthly income of $150. This was seen as blowing a hole in Xi’s claim to defeat poverty.

“There are no perfect people or perfect politicians,” wrote a former journalist who goes by the name Yan Xiaoyun. “People should not forget Premier Li’s courage to uncover the truth.”

The public response on Friday was the most significant outpouring of emotion since the White Paper movement last November, when thousands of Chinese in several cities took to the streets to protest the country’s harsh “zero Covid” policies and many more. People joined the protest online.

The deaths of senior leaders are always delicate occasions in Chinese politics. Some journalists and commentators speculated whether Mr. Li’s death could spark a protest like that in 1989 after Hu Yaobang, the sidelined former Chinese Communist Party chief, died of a sudden heart attack. Most people concluded that probably wouldn’t be the case, since Xi tightly controls the Internet. People speculated that Mr. Li would probably not be granted a high-profile funeral like the one Mr. Hu had.

In contrast to the public’s outpouring of grief, China’s official media initially downplayed Mr. Li’s death. About 100 words advertisement was listed as the third or fourth top news topic on all major news websites, behind Mr. Xi’s meeting with Governor Gavin Newsom of California. or Xi’s new book on civil affairs work.

That low-key treatment resonated with people online because it reflected what they saw as Xi’s humiliating and dismissive treatment of Li, even after his death.

“He lived frustrated and died resentful,” a Chinese journalist told me. “But aren’t we all like that?”

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