By Liz Lee and Xiaoyu Yin
BEIJING (Reuters) – China lowered the national flag Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on Thursday amid an outpouring of online grief as the country cremated Li Keqiang, known as “the people’s premier” for his down-to-earth, hands-on leadership.
Li, a former economist and pro-reform leader who served as premier for 10 years before retiring in March, died of a heart attack in Shanghai last Friday. He was 68.
At Li’s funeral at a Beijing cemetery where high-ranking officials and national heroes are laid to rest, President Xi Jinping and his wife, with the six other members of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, the highest rung of political power in China, as well as Vice President Han Zheng paid their final respects.
The group stood in silence and took three bows, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Former President Hu Jintao sent a wreath to express his condolences over Li’s passing, according to Xinhua.
Messages for the late premier flooded social media platforms as Chinese citizens mourned his death.
On popular social media platform Weibo, which replaced its ‘like’ button with a chrysanthemum flower symbolising mourning on related posts, tens of thousands of people left comments bidding Li farewell on a Thursday post by China’s national broadcaster.
Li was the top trending topic on Weibo. The hashtag for his mourning drew 430 million views.
A Beijinger surnamed Gao said Li will be remembered for his contributions to the nation. “It can be said that he has made a great contribution to people’s lives, to the improvement of living standards. In the recent pandemic, the premier always rushed to the front line,” Gao said.
Once viewed as a Communist Party leadership contender, Li was sidelined in recent years, analysts and diplomats said, as Xi tightened his grip on economic policymaking.
Shanghai resident Zhang Shijun described Li as down-to-earth man who “lot for our people; very humble and low-key”.
Some businesses such as international coffee chain Starbucks turned their app interface black and white in mourning for Li.
Photographs of Li were shared on Weibo by Xinhua news agency, including those of him with Xi, Hu and former leader Jiang Zemin. There were also photographs of Li interacting with ordinary Chinese people in the 2000s as well as one of him clambering over rubble in a disaster-stricken zone after a major earthquake in Sichuan in southwest China.
“It still feels a bit unreal, because I feel like he’s a good premier and suddenly he’s gone,” said a 24-year-old Beijing-based lawyer surnamed Wan. “And then I also feel sad for him because he was not yet old.”
(Reporting by Liz Lee, Xiaoyu Yin, Ryan Woo and Beijing newsroom; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Shri Navaratnam and Miral Fahmy)