Flags at half-mast as China mourns late premier

Flags at half-mast as China mourns late premier

BEIJING (AFP): Flags flew at half-mast in Beijing on Thursday as China prepared for the funeral of its late ex-premier Li Keqiang, a reform-minded bureaucrat who was once tipped as the country’s future leader but was eclipsed by the rise of Xi Jinping.

Li, an economist and fluent English speaker, died from a sudden heart attack in Shanghai last week at the age of 68, just months after stepping down as the country’s second-ranked leader.

The low-key but affable technocrat was seen as a consistent advocate for political liberalisation and economic reform, but came to be sidelined by Xi’s more centralised and domineering governance style.

The ruling Communist Party said in an official obituary that Li was a “time-tested and loyal communist soldier”, urging the Chinese people to “turn grief into strength” by rallying even closer around the party and its leadership.

Li will be cremated on Thursday at a ceremony likely to be attended by China’s top leadership.

But the relatively muted state commemoration and apparently heavy online censorship suggest officials hope to stifle any public outpourings of sorrow over the passing of Xi’s onetime rival.

AFP journalists in Beijing on Thursday morning saw national flags flying at half-mast in a smoggy Tiananmen Square and other locations.

State news agency Xinhua reported that flags would be lowered at government buildings across mainland China and in the semi-autonomous regions of Hong Kong and Macau.

– ‘Sidelined’ –

Li became premier in 2013, and his decade-long tenure witnessed a shift from the more consensus-based rule of former leaders towards Xi’s more concentrated style.

The appointment of a key Xi ally, Li Qiang, as his successor was seen as a sign that his reformist agenda had fallen by the wayside as Beijing tightened its grip over the economy.

Crowds of mourners laid flowers in Li Keqiang’s hometown and at his former residence in the eastern province of Anhui following the announcement of his death.

And social media users have widely shared some of his best-known quotes, including a renewed declaration of support for China’s reform and opening policy made as the country groaned under isolating Covid curbs in 2022.

“The Yellow River and Yangtze River will not change course,” Li had said, characterising the reform process as an unstoppable force of nature.

Authorities appear to be on high alert for any hints of public mourning for Li translating into criticism of Xi.

The Weibo social media site on Thursday counted over 20,000 comments beneath a hashtag commemorating Li shared by state broadcaster CCTV.

But only 13 of them were visible, suggesting Chinese censors were scrubbing vast numbers of comments from the site.

Those that remained were distinctly apolitical, wishing the late premier “farewell” and promising he would “forever be in our hearts”.

But more pointed comments could be found elsewhere, such as the former Weibo page of the whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, who died from Covid in early 2020 after officials silenced his efforts to warn others about the deadly disease, triggering a public outcry.

“All the flags in the whole country are at half-mast, and we can’t do anything except bow and bid him farewell,” one user wrote on Thursday, seemingly in reference to Li Keqiang.

“They won’t let us search for anything online, and bottling this up is unbearable,” wrote another.

David Bandurski, director of the independent China Media Project, wrote that the party had honoured Li with a “paint-by-numbers treatment”.

“In death, it seems, Li Keqiang has been sidelined too,” he said in an analysis on Thursday.