President Xi Jinping, Chinese Politburo members, and crowds of citizens paid their last respects.
China’s flag was lowered to half-mast in Tiananmen Square on Thursday as former Chinese premier Li Keqiang was laid to rest in Beijing, a week after he died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 68.
Li was cremated at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery, the resting place of prominent government officials and “revolutionary heroes” from China’s recent past.
The ceremony was attended by President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Qiang and other members of the Politburo Standing Committee in addition to Li’s family.
Prior to the cremation, Li’s body briefly lay in state, with the national flag of China and white flowers, the colour of mourning in East Asia, on display.
Outside, hundreds of people gathered to pay their last respects to the former premier, who stepped down earlier this year after completing his second five-year term in office.
More than one thousand kilometres away in Hefei, Li’s hometown in Anhui Province, crowds also gathered outside his childhood home and laid funeral wreaths at the entrance.
China’s government has been on high alert since Li’s unexpected death on October 27, as previous deaths of political figures have led to periods of unrest.
The 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests followed the death of reformist leader Hu Yaobang while another major protest in 1975 followed the death of widely respected leader Zhou Enlai.
In the days preceding Li’s funeral, state media were warned to be on the lookout for “overly effusive” comments online that contained tacit criticism of President Xi.
Many internet users reposted one of Li’s famous sayings – “the Yellow River and the Yangtze River won’t flow backwards” – a pledge that reform and opening up would continue in China despite fears to the contrary.
As a trained economist, Li was once seen as a major proponent of economic liberalisation, but he was gradually sidelined during his tenure, observers say, as Xi tightened his control of economic policymaking.
Public displays of grief following news of Li’s sudden death last week were described by New York Times columnist Li Yuan as the “most significant outpouring of emotion” in China since mass protests were staged late last year to protest COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.
Li was born in Anhui Province in 1955 and was part of a generation of Chinese leaders who were sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.
He was later able to return to his studies and received degrees in law and economics from the elite Peking University, where he also rubbed elbows with leaders of China’s democracy movement during the relatively open 1980s.
Li later became an accomplished technocrat aligned with the faction of Chinese President Hu Jintao, and was once seen as a contender for president, later losing out to Xi in the final rounds of the competition.