China’s government censors have ordered media and government WeChat accounts to be on the lookout for “overly effusive” comments about former Premier Li Keqiang as the country prepares for his cremation on Thursday.
The instructions were leaked to the China Digital Times along with details on how to report information about Li’s death, such as exclusively using content from state-run Xinhua, CCTV, or the People’s Daily and instructions to monitor the comments section.
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The warning about “effusive comments” reflects fear that such phrases might “offer exaggerated praise on the surface of what is actually an act of criticism”, the Digital Times said, in this case against Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Chinese censorship of the internet is such that many users will often speak in code to criticise the government, making use of homophones, “typos”, or slang to stay one step ahead of censors.
Deaths of political leaders are considered particularly sensitive in China as they have been linked to political upheaval in the past, most famously in the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests that followed the death of reformist leader Hu Yaobang.
The Digital Times said similar restrictions were posted by government censors last year following the death of former President Jiang Zemin.
The advice came as China said Li, who died from a heart attack at the age of 68, would be cremated on Thursday, with flags flown at half-mast.
Describing the former premier as an “outstanding” leader, the Xinhua news agency said Li’s remains had been transferred from Shanghai to Beijing on a special flight on Friday.
“He was extolled as an excellent CPC member, a time-tested and loyal communist soldier and an outstanding proletarian revolutionist, statesman and leader of the Party and the state,” the state news agency said.
Known for his pro-reform agenda, Li’s political legacy stands in contrast to Xi, who has consolidated personal power since taking office more than a decade ago and reversed many aspects of China’s economic opening.
By the time he stepped down in 2023 at the end of his second term as premier, Li had been effectively sidelined as a political force and did not continue into an unprecedented third term like Xi.
Comments from internet users have reportedly included the phrase “the Yangtze and the Yellow River won’t flow backwards”, a famous saying of Li promising that reforms would continue in China, which has been seen as a tacit criticism of Xi’s agenda.
Other comments appeared to imply that the internet user wished Xi and not Li had passed away, often sharing the song “Too Bad It Wasn’t You” by Malaysian singer Fish Leong, according to China Digital Times.
Li’s sudden death also comes at a time of economic difficulty for China as its real estate market, worth about 30 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), continues to spiral downwards. Property is also one of the few vehicles for common people to acquire wealth, and millions have watched as their investments in new builds have stalled amid an industry-wide credit crunch.
“The mass mourning of Li Keqiang is the mourning of a China that could have been. It is not only to show sympathy for a leader who had tried but failed to make China better, but also to express discontent with Xi and a sense of despair about China’s future,” Yaqiu Wang, the research director for China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong at Freedom House, posted on X.