Will the death of former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang precipitate civil disobedience?

Before former Chinese President Hu Jintao was escorted out of the Chinese Communist Party Congress last year, he bid farewell to Li Kiqiang. Screenshot from CNA's Youtube channel.

The sudden death of former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the age of 68 on October 27 has shocked the country. Li Keqiang was considered a long-time rival of Chinese president Xi Jinping and his death has sparked spontaneous mourning across the country, with thousands of flowers showing up in places such as Li’s hometown in Anhui. Some overseas dissidents coined the moment as “Flower Revolution”.

On the internet, the mourning of Li Keqiang has been heavily censored. The ban of discussion surrounding Li’s death is more or less anticipated as speculation and conspiracy theories have gone viral.

Li emphasized the significance of open market policy, which was at odd with Xi Jinping's stress on  party leadership in all sectors, including the country’s economy. His sudden “heart attack” in Shanghai triggered a lot of speculation given that he had just been retired for a few months, and as a former top leader, was still accompanied by security officers. 

Soon after the news of Li Keqiang’s death, thousands of people paid tribute to the begone leader by placing flowers in open and symbolic spaces, including Qianxi Square in Zhengzhou, Li’s hometown in Dingyuan, Xin Shougang bridge in Beijing and Li’s former residence in Hefei, Anhui (via @whyyoutouzhele): 

Hongxin Road in Heifei, Li Keqiang’s former residence. Just a few minutes ago. Flowers for mourning have extended through the street. 

The official farewell ceremony to the former leader was held in a standard manner in less than a week when people were still speculating on the cause of his death.

However, both state and party-affiliated media outlets had little coverage of Li's contribution to the country.

In contemporary Chinese history, a number of significant political incidents were triggered by the mourning of national leaders. The death of the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, Zhou Enlai, who was considered a political pragmatist and designated as the Chinese Communist Party Chair Mao Zedong's successor, on January 8, 1976, sparked the April 5 Tiananmen incident when mourning crowds turned into a protest against the Maoist political faction, Gang of Four, during the Tomb Sweeping Festival.

The 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests also emerged after the death of pro-reform Chinese Communist Party general secretary Hu Yaobang in April 1989. 

As for Li Keqiang, he was also well-praised for his pragmatism. On May 28, 2020, Li revealed to the press that China had over 600 million people whose monthly income is barely RMB 1,000 yuan (approximately USD 140). His speech was interpreted as an attempt to redirect the country’s focus from Xi Jinping's ideological struggle and crackdown on the private sector to economic development. However, he stepped down upon the expiry of his second term in March 2023 while Xi stayed.

To prevent the politicization of Li's death, China’s government censors ordered media outlets to block “overly effusive” comments. In China Digital Times’ censorship database, various articles on how Li Keqiang was remembered were taken down. One censored piece notes that the state-sponsored outlet People Daily had zero mention of Li’s farewell ceremony on its frontpage on November 2, 2023. 

Outside China, political interpretation of Li Keqiang’s unfulfilled career and people’s mourning has been widely spread on social media platforms such as Reddit and X. Some even marked the moment as the “Flower revolution”.

But some cast doubts. For example, Murong Xuecun, an independent Chinese writer, was sceptical of the “revolution” label, but he also saw discontent in the mourning activities:

Discontent with the current situation, despair for the future, sympathy for Li Keqiang's ‘humiliating career’, coupled with anger at Xi Jinping, and abhorrence of the three years of brutal epidemic prevention, have turned into the excessive praising of  Li Keqiang, whose sudden death drove many people to visit his former residence and hometown with flowers in their hands.[…] 

How long will this ‘flower revolution’ last? Will it trigger a larger scale protest?  I personally find this unlikely. However, even if this movement ends at this point, it will generate pressure for the Xi regime. Social movements are unpredictable. The anger and discontent that pervades China is the best soil for social movements, and even though it fails today, there will be another day. Even if it doesn't work today, there will be another day.

Indeed, a few days later, during Halloween celebrations on October 31, many took the opportunity to express their social and political discontent.

A young man who dressed as modern Chinese writer Lu Xun, who gave up his medical degree in order to save China, was taken away by Shanghai police:

In Shanghai Yanan Road, Lu Xun made a public speech in the street and was then driven away by police officers.

Earlier this year, Chinese State Television published a commentary citing Lu Xun’s short story Kong Yiji and urged young Chinese people to stop being arrogant like the fictional Kong Yiji and be realistic in the job market. Internet users then turned Lu Xun and Kong Yiji into online memes to criticize the official propaganda for blaming the victims of unemployment.

Other bold citizens dressed as Winnie the Pooh. The cartoon figure was banned online for its resemblance to Xi Jinping:

Another youth, who dressed as a surveillance camera to mock the authority, was also taken away by police (via @amnestychinese): 

Many dressed as pandemic control enforcers to remind people of the “terror” during the COVID lockdown. Human Rights in China highlighted a commentary on the investigative news platform Initium, on the collective sentiments behind this year's Halloween gathering in Shanghai:

[Images] from Shanghai Halloween have gone viral and became the hottest topic on the mainland Chinese Internet. The gathering was the biggest spontaneous collective action after the White Paper protests in November 2022. Analysis pointed out that the “craze” behind Halloween signifies the mainland Chinese youth's urge for public space to release their stress and repressed sentiment.

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