Shortly after the death on October 27 of former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克强), several places around the country saw spontaneous, large-scale mourning activities. These included Hefei, the Anhui provincial capital where Li was born and raised, as well as nearby Dingyuan County, his ancestral home. In Zhengzhou, too, 500 kilometers to the northwest, where Li served in the late 1990s as governor and later CCP Secretary, there were heartfelt actions to grieve the former leader who had stepped down only in March this year.
Among these spontaneous acts of commemoration, the largest in scale and the one to receive the most attention online was that outside Li’s childhood residence near Hefei’s Red Star Road (红星路).
“Premier Li is the pride of the people of Anhui,” one of my relatives said in a family chat group on the day news of his death broke. This accolade was accompanied by two weeping emojis. How do the people of Li Keqiang’s hometown remember him? And how have they commemorated his unexpected passing and his decade as premier?
Over the past few days, I made several trips, morning and evening, to the memorial site outside Li Keqiang’s former residence. A brief record of my observations follows.
A Flow of Pedestrians
The memorial area in Hefei was located in the old city area of Red Star Road between Huizhou Avenue and Suzhou Road, along a stretch of about 170 meters. The “epicenter,” you could say, was the dormitory building of the Anhui Provincial Museum of Literature and History at the junction of Red Star Road and Patriot Lane, where Li’s family used to live. This area is a focal point of activity for the so-called “old Hefei” people.
Just to the north is Yangtze Road, the east-west axis of Hefei, and the former location of the provincial government. Eastward is “Sipailou” (四牌樓), which was once the city’s most bustling commercial area. To the south is the ancestral hall and memorial park for another famous official from Hefei, the 11th-century magistrate Bao Zheng (包拯), celebrated for his supposed honesty and uprightness.
It is most accurate to say that Li Keqiang’s childhood residence is at No. 80 Red Star Road, originally a residence block affiliated with the Museum of Literature and History. But this building was demolished in the late 1990s, and a new building now stands in its place.
Mourners mainly proceeded to this site from both directions along Red Star Road. After laying down their flowers, they left the same way, or in some cases passed through the flower-strewn Patriot Lane and exited via Benevolence Lane to the north.
Who was the first to lay down a memorial there? Many people chatting at the scene would talk about a video they saw on Douyin, saying that the first person to place flowers was a mother who came with her young child in tow. But someone from a nearby fast-food joint told people there that the first people he saw paying their respects were college students.
What I observed there was that during the daytime on weekdays about 60 mourners came by every minute, and the flow of people increased even more after dusk when a long, slow-moving queue would form. Given this rate of pedestrian flow, it can be conservatively estimated that weekday between 30,000 and 40,000 people came to pay their respects.
Residents in the area who witnessed the crowds said that the number of people on weekdays paled in comparison to the number of people who came on the weekend. They said that the lines on the weekends were so long that they stretched along Red Star Road to the east and then north up Huizhou Avenue, and to the west then north up Suzhou Road, forming two long processions, each a kilometer in length, that reached all the way up to Yangtze Middle Road.
“Even at 10 PM there are still so many people,” said one Weibo user in an 11-minute, single-take video filmed from the intersection of Huizhou Avenue and Yangtze Middle Road all the way around to the intersection of Suzhou Road and Yangtze Middle Road. There were even flower vendors who said that over the weekend there had been lines stretching south along both Huizhou Avenue and Suzhou Road — though we could not find any verification of this.
Another time, I passed by the memorial site in the early hours of the morning on my way home. It was already two or three in the morning, but to my surprise there were still people who had come to make offerings of flowers. There were even delivery riders who came to lay flowers down, snapping photos to show their online clients that the offering had been made as requested. There was even a flower vendor with an entire box of flowers, the bouquets neatly arranged inside, who said to people present at the site that this was an order made by netizens on Douyin.
Given these details, if we make conservative estimates, we can say that in the five days from Li Keqiang’s death on Friday, October 27, to the following Tuesday, October 31, there were at least a quarter of a million visitors to the site around his childhood home.
An Easy-Going Memorial
When I passed by the site in Hefei in the very early hours of the morning, I saw something like 50 or 60 volunteers in the area wearing blue vests. A few of them appeared to be local community workers, but many more looked like university students. From time to time, men in black jackets pointed out a place for mourners to place a bouquet, or they directed the students to form a human chain to convey some of the flower arrangements down the line into a room to one side of the site. Presumably, this room was the original neighborhood office for Sanpailou Street, used before the area was revitalized. Further back, dozens of men in black sat upright on small benches, vigilantly watching the scene. In essence, the “blue vests” did not interfere with the mourners and the mourners did not do anything out of the ordinary.
On weekday mornings, the number of “blue vests” substantially increased. It seemed that in addition to street workers and university students, there were a large number of employees from local government-affiliated businesses. They were used to form a relatively dense human wall running along Red Star Road, guiding the crowd on the north side of the road toward the core area of commemoration — and keeping them away from the south side of the road.
During the day, there was more interference by the blue vests limiting what mourners could do. They were directed to lay down their flowers, take photos, and then leave quickly without lingering or blocking movement along Red Star Road. If mourners did not heed their instructions after laying down their bouquets, instead going off through undesignated paths along Patriot Lane or Benevolence Lane or wandering along wider parts of Red Star Road and chatting, the blue vests would not stop them.
On several occasions, I saw that some members of the public were unhappy with the large number of blue vests on the scene. Some muttered sarcastic remarks to themselves. One woman, after being warned not to linger after paying her respects, shouted angrily: “What’s wrong with me paying tribute to the Prime Minister? I’m just going to stand here and not move. Come and beat me up if you dare.” The blue vests responded by ignoring her. I also saw how one blue vest stepped forward to embrace and comfort a mourner who wept bitterly and became choked up about Li Keqiang’s untimely death as she came forward to pay her respects.
While some accounts on Twitter reported that blue vests censored the messages offered along with bouquets in Hefei, this was not something I witnessed during my two visits to the scene. It’s possible, too, that those in charge didn’t see the sense in being overly concerned about this. After all, most of the words on the bouquets were quickly covered with new layers of floral offerings. The bouquets wrapped in black paper were piled high, hemming in the museum dormitory and covering an area of several hundred square meters. In some places, the flowers were stacked up over the heads of the mourners and blue vests alike.
In comparison with other spontaneous mass gatherings in present-day China, the atmosphere at the Red Star Road memorial site remained rather easy-going. Narrow and crowded, Red Star Road was impassable for vehicles, and only a few police cars patrolled the surrounding roads. None of the crowd control vehicles generally present at large-scale gatherings in major cities were to be found.
For several days, a “chrysanthemum market” appeared where Suzhou Road meets Yangtze Middle Road, on the way from Sipailou metro station to the mourning site. Flower vendors set up stalls at the intersection, operating until the early morning and leaving behind heaps of stems and leaves. Many shops around the memorial also began selling flowers. In the pre-dawn, I met an elderly couple who were still decorating bouquets of chrysanthemum. They said that the price of the flowers had hit over 100 RMB thanks to unscrupulous manufacturers. They told me, tearfully, that they lived nearby and were just trying to do their duty as Chinese.
The story circulating among people in Heifei was that chrysanthemums in the city had already sold out by Saturday and a special shipment had been flown in from southwest China’s Yunnan province, resulting in the mark-up. Individual vendors were still selling the flowers for as little as 3 RMB each, but this didn’t stop some from accusing them of “profiting from national tragedy” and instructing them on what they saw as reasonable prices — which were so low, the vendors said, they would have been losing money.
In addition to the flowers, there were also more “creative” offerings laid at the memorial site, like a leather belt (referencing an old, worn-out belt Li was pictured wearing on an official tour) and the Communist Party’s emblem reshaped into a heart. Some offered glasses of the fiery baijiu liquor beloved by officials and others brewed cups of local Hefei teas. Messages were scrawled on the cups, like “Sir, the night is cold; warm yourself with a hot cup of tea from your hometown.”
At a Loss for Words
From the unusual scale of the public mourning for Li, it is clear that his passing triggered a powerful wave of emotions across the country. But just looking at the cards and written notes left behind by mourners, it is hard to understand why. Most of the messages were more or less the same, saying something anodyne like “our condolences” or “farewell.” Others were simple appraisals of his political character, like “governing for the people,” “fair and selfless,” and “worked with utter devotion.” Others turned the characters of his name and his title into poems.
On Red Star Road, some borrowed the words used to mourn earlier statesmen. “The people’s premier is loved by the people, the premier of the people is for the people,” which was used to commemorate premier Zhou Enlai in 1976, appeared often. As did “filling the city with flowers to send off one person,” used for agronomist and inventor Yuan Longping, who died in 2021. Also popular was the faux-ancient line used in recent years to commemorate revolutionary martyrs: “I have never met them but I am deeply honoured by them. Please accept these three tributes from the younger generation: First, I salute the martyrs for their loyalty and bravery in protecting the nation! Second, I honor the undying spirit of the martyrs! Third, I pay my respects to the martyrs for blessing our China!”
The most common words connected to Li himself were from a graduation note he wrote for his classmate Song Jian in the 1980s: “Sincerity that lacks not eminence; kindness that lacks not strength; the holding of life high atop the mundane and imbuing this throughout society — these should be the common pursuits of our generation.” Li’s response to a reporter during the Two Sessions in 2013 also appeared: “To follow the Great Way, put the people first and deliver benefits for all.”
Quotations commonly invoked by liberals comprised only a small portion of the messages at the memorial area. Although it is the phrase most commonly seen online, I only saw “the Yangtze and Yellow River will not flow backward” — a line by Li avowing commitment to reform and opening — twice on site. “Heaven watches all we do” and “the darkest hour” I saw just once each.
There were also two messages comparing the spontaneous mourning among the people to official propaganda and “forced worship.” No doubt, censorship, and fear played a role in what people chose to write, but perhaps there is also a deeper reason. The space for speech in China has shrunk so much in recent years that many people have no experience or language to draw on when confronted with the need to express themselves publicly.
Perhaps it can be understood like this: Li Keqiang’s sudden death has become a symbol of the national trauma wrought by recent times. The spontaneous outpouring of grief that followed has become a kind of public self-healing and catharsis. After a great collective trauma, members of a community tend to be kinder to each other. In Hefei these past few days, you could observe this collective good will: taxi drivers refused fares from passengers going to the memorial; vendors let people from outside the city who rushed over take flowers for free; businesses affected by the road closures told me they weren’t worried about the dip in sales; and nearby shops left out bottles of water for mourners to take.
People also gathered at the site to chat, particularly middle-aged and elderly locals. They mainly discussed their hastily pieced-together knowledge of Li, often starting conversations with “I saw on Douyin that …”
Sometimes they got involved in heated debates, pointing out gaps in each other’s knowledge. I saw one Hefei local insist that, at Peking University, Li Keqiang studied under linguist and palaeographer Ji Xianlin, hence his strong background in Chinese studies. He ignored a young man’s constant corrections that Li had in fact studied under the economist Li Yining. At the Li family’s former residence, old neighbors and even childhood friends of Li’s presented themselves on site as experts, fielding questions and taking photos with visitors as souvenirs.
Most people, though, arrived quietly, took some pictures or clips to post on WeChat and Douyin, then left quietly. I spoke to two such mourners, a pair of sisters who drove in from the countryside some 100km away. “If I didn’t see off such a good premier,” one of them said, “I wouldn’t feel at ease.”
Li was a “good man” and a “good premiere” — this was the consensus. But as for the details, what concrete contributions he made, few could say. The most common answer was that he kept the people in his heart, was simple and low-profile, and “visited disaster zones all the time and didn’t publicize it to the media.” Many people said he spoke the truth: “He said 600 million of us were still living in poverty [as Xi Jinping claimed to have eradicated poverty in China] and the most important thing is that he said it publicly.”
Over the past few days, there has been a common implication on the Chinese internet that Li was only “good” in comparison to his contemporaries. People on site thought this way, too. In comparison to who, exactly, one can use one’s own imagination. From deep in Patriot Lane, I heard an old lady shout, “It shouldn’t have been him who died!” A few older men around me cheered and laughed. She explained later, replete with expletives: “Zhu Rongji still hasn’t died and this one’s already dead! Zhu is the worst! Jiang Zemin’s generation was the worst!”
Hefei residents present seemed to have strong opinions of Jiang. “Jiang’s ancestors were from Jiang village in Jingde, Hefei,” someone suggested, only to be met with scoffs. Everyone seemed to think that any leader with Anhui ancestry was a great person. But just as they couldn’t say what exactly was so good about Li, they couldn’t say what exactly was so bad about Jiang.
Maybe it’s because Jiang, who also died not long ago, was afforded state-funeral treatment. Comparing this with the public’s spontaneous mourning of Li, people have said that “the common people have their scales in their hearts.” They often asked, “When Jiang died did ordinary people come out like this?”
Li’s funerary arrangements have been in line with the Party standard and the precedent set by the late premier Li Peng. But many Hefei people have nonetheless been angered by how his obituary wasn’t front and center in the People’s Daily, how the paper’s mastheads were printed in red rather than black, and — most unacceptably — how there wasn’t an official memorial service. “People in Dingyuan” — Li’s ancestral home — “say that if there isn’t a memorial they’ll bring people over to host one there,” according to the mourners.
The older generation’s demands around ceremony and rites put the “blue vests” to shame. At noon, a few blue vests sat in the sunshine on Benevolence Lane, complaining that some members of the public had requested a suspension of cultural and entertainment activities. “These old people have blown up the government’s phones. Scheduled concerts will have to be canceled, tickets will be canceled and hotels will turn people out — it’ll be a huge loss for the city.”
I read that an old lady was angered by blue vests collecting flowers in the early morning hours, and she argued vociferously with someone who said that they had to prevent passageways from being blocked by all the offerings. “That’s just an excuse,” the old lady said. “Obviously, it’s because too many flowers would have a negative impact, some people would be unhappy. I’m just an uneducated old woman and even I can see why — can’t you?”
This talk of “good people being bullied” has a tinge of deep-state conspiracy theories. Combined with the cult often surrounding premiers in Chinese society, it forms a hazy but firm belief in the people’s consciousness: that China’s leadership is overwhelmingly comprised of bad people, interspersed with the odd premier of conscience — former president and fellow Anhui native Hu Jintao seen by some as an exception to the rule. “I’ve only cried for two people in my life, Premier Zhou and Premier Li,” a woman whimpered in the back of a store. “I’ve never cried for other officials… It’s not that I don’t want to, I just can’t squeeze out the tears.”
As one can imagine, Li’s sudden death from a heart attack shortly after leaving office has spurred on all manner of conspiracy theories. People from all walks of life have told me there’s something “fishy,” something “too strange” about the way he died. “Even a local community hospital in Shanghai has better equipment and conditions than our provincial hospitals — how could they not have treated his heart disease?” The boldest assertion I heard came from a taxi driver: “We drivers all say the same thing — he was killed on the emperor’s orders!”
Compared with the older generation who speak the Hefei dialect and have accents from all over the province, younger Mandarin-speakers and out-of-towners were more eager to talk politics. In particular, many of the mourners who travelled from outside the city would hang around after laying their flowers to chat with locals and share their political views. A university student from a neighboring province started talking to the owner of a snack shop about the alleged power struggle between Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping. Several other students were reading messages in the early morning and called out, “There’s a sensitive one over there!” Another young men whispered to a local woman about how “anti-corruption is just an excuse for [Xi’s] power-grabbing” and “even Hu Jintao has been taken away by [Xi]!”
Sometimes, these “out-of-province forces” spread conspiracy theories that would make your hairs stand on end.
A local taxi driver told me a young man from out of town was talking about all sorts of rumors surrounding the recent purges of Foreign Minister Qin Gang and Defense Minister Li Shangfu. “People are saying they were both killed by [Xi],” he said. “I didn’t understand political stuff in the past but his tactics are too vicious… Us ordinary people have been living good lives for just a short time and we’re already heading for another Cultural Revolution.”
Another taxi driver told me he was convinced that the official version of Li Keqiang’s death was a lie. As for the real reason he died, he said, “Next time I pick up a few customers from Beijing, they’ll know — they all know what’s going on in Zhongnanhai.”
The second time I passed Red Star Road, I heard two ladies who had just finished laying flowers and were resting on a bench. Their accents were thick and clearly not local, more like people from eastern Anhui.
I heard them discussing things in their local dialect that I thought only university students speaking Mandarin talked about. “This is the true heart of the people,” one of them said. “The last time the people honored someone like this, it was Zhou Enlai.”
“No,” the other woman corrected her, “it wasn’t Zhou Enlai. It was a doctor in Wuhan named Li Wenliang.”
This article originally appeared in Chinese at Initium Media.