Even in authoritarian countries, leaders are reluctant to cross certain lines. Thus in Poland, the communist government was unable to prevent a degree of resistance within the Catholic Church. In some Muslim countries, leaders are forced to tolerate some dissent within the Islamic leadership.

In China, there have been several notable cases of a period of mourning turning into an implicit form of protest. After Zhou Enlai died in April 1976, there was a memorial set up in Tiananmen Square. Over time, the intensity of the expressions of grief steadily increased and became seen as a disguised protest against the reckless policies of Mao Zedong (who died a few months later.). It was hard for the authorities to crack down too severely on a large group of people putting flowers onto the memorial of a much beloved leader like Zhou.  Nonetheless, authorities did eventually clear the square.

History repeated itself (in the same location) in April 1989, when there was another outpouring of grief in response to the death of another Chinese reformer (Hu Yaobang).  This time, the protests morphed into a strong pro-democracy movement, which eventually led to a violent crackdown.

In light of this history, a recent Financial Times story caught my eye:

Hundreds of mourners have flocked to Li Keqiang’s childhood home to pay their respects to a reformist politician many saw as the “people’s premier”, creating a potential political challenge for Chinese president Xi Jinping.

The popular outpouring for Li, who died suddenly last week aged 68, was mirrored in other cities and on Chinese social media, with many people contrasting the late premier’s relatively down-to-earth style with that of his more aloof colleagues.

The rare public outburst of grief for Li, who was largely sidelined by Xi while in office, presents a delicate situation for China’s ruling Communist party as it contends with a lagging economic recovery and geopolitical tensions, analysts said. 

Li was a relatively liberal figure by Chinese standards (albeit not by Western standards.). He spoke out against overly tight Covid controls and favored good relations with the West.  He was also in favor of free market reforms of China’s economy:

“Sometimes to praise the path not taken is to make a comment on the path that was taken,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a fellow at the Atlantic Council Global China Hub. “For some, Li Keqiang represented a relatively more laissez-faire attitude towards state-society relations, and he stood for allowing more space for societal and market forces.”.

It’s unfortunate that Li did not become China’s leader in 2012. In retrospect, however, it was no surprise.  Almost the entire world moved in a more illiberal direction during the 2010s.  And of course China’s shift toward authoritarian nationalism cannot be blamed on jobs lost as a result of the “China Shock”.  Nor can the Hungarian shift, or the Turkish shift, or the Indian shift, or the Russian shift, or the US shift.  Much deeper forces are at work.