They posted videos on social media from the time 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 highlighted the economic growth target for the first year of his mandate: 7.5 percent.
The death of Li Keqiang, 68, on Friday sparked spontaneous mourning online. Mr. Li served as prime minister, China’s second-ranking official, for a decade until last March.
Among many Chinese, Mr. Li’s death sparked a wave of nostalgia for what he represented: a time of greater economic opportunity and openness to private enterprise. The reaction was shocking and showed China’s dissatisfaction with the leadership of Xi Jinping, the hard-line Chinese leader who won an unprecedented third term last year after maneuvering to abolish the limit long-serving two-term president.
In post after post on social media, people praised Mr. Li more for what he stood for and said than for what he was able to accomplish under the leadership of Mr. Xi, who led the development of economic policy during Mr. Li’s term.
Mr. Li was probably the least powerful prime minister in the history of the People’s Republic of China. The grief over his death reflects the public’s sense of loss over an abandoned era of reform and growth, as well as its deep sense of helplessness in the face of the China of Mr. Xi, the most authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong.
A message widely circulated on several social media sites said many Chinese saw themselves in Mr. Li – people “who struggled over the past decade but gradually lost ground.”
The most widely shared messages were 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 flow back.” » Some videos were later removed or could not be shared after Chinese censorship was triggered.
On the social media platform Weibo, many posts expressing shock at the suddenness of his death were censored. The same goes for comments calling him a “good prime minister for the people” and a “great man.” Authorized comments were mostly along the lines of “rest in peace.”
For many people in China, Mr. Li’s death has unleashed pent-up frustration, anger and anxiety over what they see as Mr. Xi’s mismanagement of the economy. Mr. Xi has attacked the private sector, damaging some of China’s most successful companies. He has alienated some of China’s biggest trading partners and grown closer to countries like Russia, while replacing reform-minded leaders with loyalists. Mr. Xi has shifted the government’s attention more toward ideology than the economy.
To them, Mr. Li, with 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 speech at his first news conference in 2013 after becoming prime minister.
“We will be loyal to the constitution, loyal to the people, and take the wishes of the people as the direction of our governance,” Li said.
Commenting on his death, people said they could not believe that the national growth target then was 7.5 percent. China’s economy missed its 2022 target of 5.5% and many analysts say 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.”
Many business owners and investors shared photos of themselves with Mr. Li, an advocate of entrepreneurship and innovation, while visiting their businesses. They recalled that the government was encouraging new products and business models, calling them the golden days of entrepreneurship. “He left us suddenly,” wrote an Internet businessman named Ding. “And he took the golden age with him.”
They posted photos of him visiting Wuhan in January 2020, when Covid ravaged the city. Mr. Xi did not come there until nearly two months later, after the initial spread of the virus had been contained. They posted photos of Mr Li visiting flood and earthquake victims. Mr. Xi is known for staying away from disaster scenes.
They also shared a series of photos of Mr. Li chatting amicably with other government leaders, contrasting those scenes with Mr. Xi’s authoritarian 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 pointed out that China may be the world’s second-largest economy, but it has 600 million people with a monthly income of 150 dollars. This was seen as a flaw in Mr. Xi’s claim to conquer poverty.
“There are no perfect people and no perfect politicians,” wrote a former journalist named Yan Xiaoyun. “People should not forget Premier Li’s courage to find out the truth. »
The public reaction Friday was the biggest wave of emotion since last November’s White Paper movement, when thousands of Chinese in several cities took to the streets to protest the country’s harsh “zero Covid” policy and as many more people joined the online outcry.
The death of senior leaders is always a sensitive moment in Chinese politics. Some journalists and commentators have speculated that Mr. Li’s death could spark a protest like that in 1989 after the sudden death of Hu Yaobang, the sidelined former head of the Chinese Communist Party, from a heart attack. Most people concluded that this probably would not be the case since Mr. Xi tightly controls the Internet. People speculated that Mr. Li would probably not get a funeral as high-profile as Mr. Hu’s.
In contrast to the public’s outpouring of grief, Chinese state media initially downplayed Mr. Li’s death. A 100-word announcement was the third or fourth most important news story on all major news sites, behind Mr. Xi’s meeting with Governor Gavin Newsom of California. or Mr. Xi’s new book on working in civil affairs.
The low-key treatment resonated with netizens because it reflected what they saw as Mr. Xi’s humiliating and dismissive treatment of Mr. Li, even after his death.
“He lived in frustration and died in resentment,” a Chinese journalist told me. “But aren’t we all like that?”