Former Chinese premier Li Keqiang (李克強) died on Friday last week at the age of 68, reportedly of a heart attack. Considering the medical care available to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders and the fact that there had been no sign that Li had any particular health problems, people have been wondering about the real cause of his sudden death. Even the Chinese public do not believe the official story.
There is even a rumor circulating among Chinese online groups that Li’s obituary was written the day before he died, causing still more people to believe that his death might have been “brought about.”
There is good reason to doubt that Li died of natural causes, just as there are reasons to doubt whether a string of former top officials, including former Chinese minister of foreign affairs Qin Gang (秦剛), former navy commander Li Yuchao (李玉超), former Chinese minister of national defense Li Shangfu (李尚福) and even former Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), who have all disappeared, are still alive. After all, the sudden disappearance, death or suicide of high-ranking officials is not uncommon in totalitarian China.
A look at how many Hong Kong protesters died or disappeared in strange circumstances during the 2019 to 2020 protests, and whose cases the government summarily dismissed as “not suspicious” while secretly blocking news about them and preventing them from being traced, makes it clear that “being suicided” has never been an empty rumor, but rather a common method that dictators use to get rid of their opponents.
Li Keqiang was actually in quite a weak position even when he was in office, so after he stepped down prematurely, his political power was obviously even more ephemeral. Unlike a general in the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, he did not hold a gun in his hand, so in theory he was not much of a threat to Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
However, comparison can be a challenge in itself.
Although Li Keqiang’s talents were questionable, his economic ideas, known as “Likonomics,” are somewhat in demand during the economic collapse caused by Xi’s protectionism. There were frequent calls of “up with Li, down with Xi,” so no wonder Li Keqiang became a thorn in the dictator’s side. Furthermore, Li Keqiang was also one of the main representatives of the Communist Youth League faction and the “reformists,” two groups that Xi has been trying to eliminate for years.
Shortly after the news of Li Keqiang’s death, many Chinese spontaneously mourned for the “people’s premier.” The Chinese regime has always had a taboo about mass gatherings, especially since 1989, when large numbers of people gathered to mourn former CCP general secretary Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), who also died of a heart attack. These public remembrances lit the fuse for the 1989 democracy movement that culminated in the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
Although Li Keqiang’s political achievements can hardly compare with Hu Yaobang’s, his death is enough for the suspicious Xi to worry that the masses might use this opportunity to vent their discontent and anger against him, but after so many years of brainwashing and tight control of opinion and expression, Chinese society has long ceased to have the basic conditions for a new wave of campaigning for democracy.
Hong Tsun-ming, originally from Hong Kong, is a specialist in the Taiwan Statebuilding Party’s international section.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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