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China Blocked Online Appreciations After Death of Li Keqiang, Top Official Linked to Reform

A large screen broadcasts an obituary of the former Chinese premier Li Keqiang outside a mall in Beijing on Oct. 27, 2023.
A large screen broadcasts an obituary of the former Chinese premier Li Keqiang outside a mall in Beijing on Oct. 27, 2023.

The sudden death of former Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang triggered strict censorship protocols on China’s social media platforms soon after the official announcement of his fatal heart attack Oct. 27 in Shanghai.

On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of X, almost all comment areas under news related to his death were filtered or removed. Comments that survived read simply, "Have a good journey," or "You will live forever."

The official response recognized that many citizens considered Li as the last high-level official who represented the path of reform and opening up under the increasingly closed China of President Xi Jinping.

Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center, told VOA Mandarin, "Li was a pragmatic economic technocrat sidelined by Xi. And now, there is widespread resentment against Xi for overemphasizing ideology and mismanaging the economy. Xi's government is nervous and working overtime to censor indirect criticism sparked by Li's death.”

Official control over the news extended to the lack of mention of Li’s death in Oct. 27 reports of the Washington, D.C., meeting between China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and U.S. President Joe Biden, even though the White House release on the same event offered condolences.

Dennis Wilder, a senior fellow for the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University, told VOA Mandarin, "The Chinese government is obviously playing the death of Li Keqiang very carefully. They know that these are very sensitive times when a leader of his sort passes, because it can lead to outpourings of support for particular political positions, such as greater reform."

"Comrade Li Keqiang's death" topped the trending topic list on Weibo within an hour of the official announcement. However, when VOA Mandarin clicked on this topic on Oct. 27, Weibo showed that comments would not be displayed in accordance with laws and regulations. Weibo later that day reversed that stance and showed the relevant content.

China’s state-owned Xinhua News Agency replaced the “like” button for Li’s obituary post, replacing it with a wreath logo.

As news of Li's death spread online, so did postings of the love song “Unfortunately, It’s Not You,” a love song by Malaysian singer Fish Leong that netizens post whenever a leader dies, to express regret that Xi lives on.

"Every time someone dies, the number of people listening to Leong's real-time broadcast soars," one Weibo netizen wrote.

Weibo blocked the searches "Unfortunately, It's Not You" and "Fish Leong.”

Another Chinese social media platform, WeChat, closed the comment areas under the original and cover versions of the song.

On the Chinese video website Bilibili, a message saying, "It sounds great," was in the comments under the "Unfortunately, It's Not You" music video. The message received more than 1,000 likes within three hours.

Despite the restrictions imposed on China’s heavily censored internet, many bloggers and netizens managed to discuss Li and the meaning of his death.
Some posted images of a legal text he translated, “Due Process of Law,” by Baron Alfred Denning.

The blogger "Anything_But_Mirror" said Li's death made her think of the end of prosperity and growth that China has had in the new millennium.

"After he left, it was as if the last afterimage of the unrepeatable and glorious years of the first decade of the millennium also dissipated," she wrote to great response.

For many netizens, Li's death evoked the current era of reduced expectations.

"How many people today have seen themselves struggling to support themselves but losing ground gradually over the past ten years?" read a Weibo post that resonated with netizens.

Weibo deleted the post.

Many commented on the rarity of Li’s insistence on reform and opening up, sharing his words: "The Yellow River and Yangtze River will not flow backward."

The remark, made on a Shenzhen trip in 2022, suggests nothing can stop reform and opening up.

A WeChat article commemorating Li by a poster with the handle Ze Yu, ended with the line, "As the era comes to an end, the debate about this decade may continue, but what remains unchanged, I think, is his sincere and humble smile because it was the epitome of his perseverance to fulfill his duties and promises with hard work. I think this is the best way to say goodbye."

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.