The recent demise of former Premier Li Keqiang has sent shockwaves through China, sparking discussions about economic reform and highlighting growing dissatisfaction with the leadership of President Xi Jinping. Li’s unexpected death, officially attributed to a heart attack, has led to a surge in conspiracy theories and public unrest, signaling a potential threat to Xi’s rule.
Li Keqiang, who passed away in Shanghai on October 27 at the age of 68, played a significant role in contemporary China, although his political contributions were often overshadowed by the dominance of President Xi Jinping. Li’s death has been viewed by many as the symbolic end of an era characterized by relative openness and economic growth in China.
While the ruling Communist Party still pays lip service to the idea of “reforms,” the reality, as observed by Old Dominion University professor Li Shaomin, is that economic openness no longer carries the promise of fostering democratic values such as free speech, the rule of law, and free markets. Li Keqiang’s passing has, in a sense, shattered the illusion that China was moving toward a more liberal and democratic future.
The muted funeral ceremony for Li, seemingly designed to prevent public displays of grief that could escalate into protests, reflects the sensitivity of the Chinese government to any potential unrest. The limitations on online condolences imposed by censors, coupled with heightened security in Beijing, indicate the leadership’s concern over the public’s reaction to Li’s death.
Cultural Revolution expert and California State University professor Song Yongyi suggests that the symbolic associations with Li’s death make him a more potent figure in challenging Xi Jinping’s rule in death than he was in life. Xi Jinping, who reportedly viewed Li as a potential threat, now faces increased scrutiny and questioning of his leadership, fueled by conspiracy theories surrounding Li’s demise.
The doubts surrounding Li Keqiang’s death, whether substantiated or not, hold significant political implications, according to former 1989 student leader and political commentator Wang Dan. These doubts contribute to a deepening public distrust of and opposition to Xi Jinping, portraying him as a public enemy. The spontaneous commemorative activities for Li among ordinary people draw parallels with past instances of mass public mourning, indicating a potential groundswell of dissatisfaction that could pose a threat to Xi Jinping’s leadership.
Liberal economist He Qinglian points out that middle-class millennials, born in China’s economically prosperous era, are among the most dissatisfied with the current leadership. Despite experiencing economic bottlenecks in adulthood and facing strict surveillance by authorities, this generation is expressing its dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs through spontaneous acts of mourning and public tributes.
The floral tributes and online expressions of grief for Li Keqiang have reportedly unnerved the Xi administration. Political commentator Chen Pokong notes that suspicions of foul play in Li’s death have fueled the belief in a major political conspiracy, further eroding public trust in the leadership. Li’s image as a moderate and enlightened reformer has left a lasting impact on the public consciousness, prompting widespread lamentation for the perceived demise of an era of progress.
“Nearly everyone in China can see themselves in this down-to-earth premier,” Chen wrote in a Nov. 8 commentary for RFA Mandarin, adding that many had been impressed by his outspoken comment that 600 million in China still live in poverty, undermining Xi’s later claim to have eradicated it.
Yet Chen also pointed to wider political themes from Li Keqiang’s death, which “also symbolizes the end of the era of reform and opening up.”
“People instinctively feel that a darker era is coming, and that the future is dangerous,” he wrote. As China mourns the loss of Li Keqiang, it simultaneously grapples with the unraveling of the ideals and promises associated with the era of reform and opening up. The dissatisfaction with Xi Jinping’s leadership, coupled with suspicions surrounding Li’s death, creates a volatile mix that could pose a significant challenge to Xi’s grip on power. It could be the beginning of dissent of unimaginable proportions. Xi jinping is clearly not ready for what is to come. The legacy of Li Keqiang and the response to his passing serve as a stark reminder of the complexities and uncertainties within China’s political landscape.