Published1 day ago
“He was a great leader who has remained in our hearts,” says a man who has come to pay his respects to Li Keqiang, China’s popular former premier who died last week.
Flowers in hand, he and his son walk up to Li’s childhood home on Hongxing road in the city of Hefei. The footpaths are covered in a sea of flowers. Crowds of mourners have been gathering since the 68-year-old suddenly died in Shanghai of a heart attack.
“He visited our textile factory and it left a deep impression,” says the man. Li was from the same province as him, Anhui, he added: “It’s too sad. I can’t accept it.”
China’s Communist Party has had no choice but to allow this remembrance of Li, who had been the number two leader before he retired earlier this year. But even in death, he remains a challenge to China’s current leader, Xi Jinping.
Publicly criticising Xi, or the Communist Party, would be dangerous. But Li’s passing has provided a window to acknowledge his vision for the country and his seemingly more open and moderate approach to politics – which many see as a sharp contrast to Xi’s hard-line style.
“My best friend and I took a day off to come here and place flowers,” says a well-dressed middle-aged woman, wearing a pearl necklace and earrings. “He was always looking out for ordinary people. He always had us in his heart.”
However, she is soon interrupted by officials telling her, and the BBC crew, to move on.
Officers in plain clothes keep gathering in greater numbers around those speaking to the BBC, listening in to what they say. Along Hongxing road, there are hundreds of them, and many more Communist Party volunteers. They are there to maintain order, and journalists are pushed out of the area, with interviews prevented.
Two young women in their 20s can barely be heard over the shouts telling them to leave, as they try to explain the gratitude and love they wanted to express towards Li.
Two other women emerge from Hongxing road, and one of them is pushing their mother in a wheelchair. “We took our mother to visit our former premier,” one of them says.
“I saw him and paid my respects,” her elderly mother chimes in, clasping her hands as if to pray. “He was a really good man…” she continues, but then a woman appears next to her and starts pushing the wheelchair away, urging them to leave and stop talking to the media.
Nearby, a man wearing a backpack is watching. He says he has come to Anhui province from Shanghai to honour Li, “a leader who ordinary people believe spoke the truth”.
“When we had difficulties or hardships, he visited to try to understand the situation.” Then, referring to the man who has replaced him as premier, he adds “not like Li Qiang”, who he describes as a sycophant.
When asked to clarify if he thought Li Keqiang was better than Li Qiang, he says: “I don’t need to say it. You can ask anyone in Shanghai.”
By now, people are gathering to listen. “Chinese officials are not used to speaking the truth,” he says. “When we heard about his death, we felt surprised because Chinese leaders normally have good health and live to a long age.”
An official interrupts the interview, and starts pushing him down the street. She keeps telling him that he’s not a local, implying that it is not his place to come to Hefei and start speaking to reporters. He turns to the BBC crew and says, “I can’t stay here”. The official physically manoeuvres him into a taxi and orders him to leave.
About an hour’s drive out of Hefei, another house where Li used to live has become a place of remembrance. Like in Hefei, the regional capital, the home of Li’s ancestors in the village of Jiuzi is surrounded by thousands of flowers, bunched together in black plastic for the occasion.
Police have cleared a pathway for mourners to enter and leave. Chickens and birds can be heard above the shuffle of feet and quiet words as people bow in front of the thatch-roofed, mud-walled house where Li spent time as a child.
His modest background has endeared him to ordinary Chinese, especially after he famously referred to the high proportion of them who still live on a meagre income. Two women who’ve brought their small daughters to place flowers acknowledge this – one of them describes him as “considerate” towards the country’s poor and its millions of migrant labourers.
“He was always thinking of ordinary folk, so we brought our daughters here to send him off,” she adds. Another woman walks past and stops to say: “He was really down to earth. He’s the son of a farmer. He didn’t behave like an official.”
Then an 80-year-old woman arrives with her family. She is wearing a red medal around her neck with a hammer and sickle, the symbols of the Communist Party. She holds it up, declaring proudly that she’s been in the Party for 60 years.
Asked if Li was one of the best leaders China has had, she says, “Yes, yes, yes”. Her much younger companion adds: “He was actually the best.”
Clutching her medal, the older woman says: “Premier Li won people’s hearts.”