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Why the sudden death of a former Chinese premier has moved so many people

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

China held a muted cremation ceremony for its former premier today that contrasted with the outpouring of public grief and shock over his sudden death last week at the age of 68. NPR's Emily Feng tells us why his death has moved so many people.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: In life, China's former Premier Li Keqiang was largely overlooked, a bland and cautious premier eclipsed by the force of the country's current leader, Xi Jinping. But in death, Li has become a stand-in for expressing discontent, a safe way to contrast his more reform-minded policy stances with the political control of Xi's. And so, since Li's death from a heart attack, thousands of people have been streaming to his birthplace every day in his home province of Anhui in eastern China.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: This woman laying flowers says the people want to give him a good sendoff, proper mourning for at least a week to show him how they feel. Like all the people in this piece, NPR is not using their names to protect them from possible retribution, because Beijing is careful about how to commemorate Li. They want to show him respect without encouraging public grief, and Beijing has not scheduled a memorial or a public funeral for Li.

(CROSSTALK)

FENG: Flower sellers are doing brisk business. Carnations are now piled several feet high outside Li's childhood home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: This man says he came because Li was a good premier for the people, and that's why he's chosen to stand in a line stretching around the city block for his chance to give the former premier flowers. China's ruling Communist Party is ultra careful about commemorating its former leaders because they prompt reflection on the current leadership. The death of another leader, Hu Yaobang, in the 1980s, for example, unleashed protests against the excesses of the party's rule. Li was no revolutionary, but as an idealistic university student in the 1980s, he rubbed elbows with democracy activists and liberal student intellectuals. And his turn into a party functionary struck some as a waste of potential.

(CROSSTALK)

FENG: As night falls, a police officer in Li's hometown tells people to stop filming the line of public mourners. Get out of here now, he orders them. No one listens. Videos online of the mourners are quickly censored on China's internet. But for this week, the life of Li Keqiang is on the minds of many in the country.

Emily Feng, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AKIRA KOSEMURA'S "THE CYCLE OF NATURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.