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Crowds gather near a state funeral home as China’s former Premier Li Keqiang is put to rest

HEFEI, China (AP) — Hundreds, possibly thousands, of people gathered Thursday near a state funeral home in Beijing as China’s former second-ranking leader, Li Keqiang, was put to rest, while a steady stream of mourners showed their respects at the ex-premier’s childhood home in central China.

Li, who was China’s top economic official for a decade, died last Friday of a heart attack at age 68.

“The remains of Comrade Li Keqiang … were cremated at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery in Beijing on Thursday,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

State broadcaster CCTV showed President Xi Jinping accompanied by his wife, Peng Liyuan, bowing before Li’s body, which was surrounded by greenery and covered with a Communist Party flag.

Xi was followed by the other six members of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee.

“Li was extolled as an excellent (Communist Party) member, a time-tested and loyal Communist soldier and an outstanding proletarian revolutionist, statesman and leader of the party and the state,” Xinhua said, repeating the language it had used earlier in his brief obituary.

Li was an advocate of private business who promised market-oriented reforms, and helped navigate the world’s second-largest economy through challenges such as rising tensions with the United States and the COVID-19 pandemic. But he was left with little authority after Xi made himself the most powerful Chinese leader in decades by eliminating presidential term limits and tightening control over the economy and society.

In front of the funeral home, plainclothes and uniformed police lined the roadway for hundreds of meters (yards), blocking traffic and telling people to move along. Police also moved people away from a subway station near the cemetery, where state funerals are held and many top leaders are buried.

A forest of phone cameras rose as the cortege consisting of several buses passed by.

Large crowds also gathered in Li’s hometown of Hefei in the central province of Anhui, where a steady stream of people, some wearing black, were permitted to walk down Hongxing Road to lay small bouquets of white and yellow chrysanthemums and pay their respects in front of the three-story shophouse where Li spent his childhood.

The scene was similar to that immediately after Li’s death was announced, when the line ran for 10 kilometers (6 miles) and residents waited up to five hours to present flowers, according to Anhui native Liu Xiaoqiang.

That was viewed by some as a protest against Li’s political sidelining by the increasingly authoritarian Xi.

Such spontaneous gatherings are almost never permitted in China, but the authorities appeared to be taking a relatively light approach, possibly to avoid sparking a larger incident. However, AP journalists in Hefei were shadowed by unidentified people who monitored their interviews and in some cases tried to record them.

“The death was so sudden and we came here to see him off,” said Hefei resident Liu Ying. She brought her 7-year-old son and planned to meet with a friend who was bringing her daughter so they could lay flowers together.

Liu said her son only vaguely knew who Li was. “He does not understand now but he will when he grows up,” she said.

Another woman said she and two friends dressed in black traveled Wednesday from the neighboring province of Jiangsu and had laid bouquets three times. She described Li as “a good premier loved by the people.”

Li was dropped from the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee in October 2022. He left office in March, despite being two years below the informal retirement age of 70.

“He did concrete things for the people,” said the woman, who was unable to give her name before being moved along by men and women in blue vests, apparently plainclothes police officers.

The small street was closed to traffic, and visitors proceeded under the watchful eye of a large team of the people in blue vests, who ordered the crowd not to loiter. Hundreds of other bystanders looked on and took videos with their phones.

At least one delivery person wearing a motorcycle helmet and carrying an armful of bouquets sent from Jiangsu was stopped and questioned by two men in blue vests.

By noon, the mound of flowers had grown more than a meter (yard) high and several meters (yards) across.

Flags were lowered to half-staff at government and party offices around the country and at Chinese embassies and consulates abroad.

Li rose from relatively humble roots to attend prestigious Peking University following the end of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution and rose steadily up the ranks, holding several high provincial offices before being transferred to Beijing. At one time he was favored for the top spot before being eclipsed by Xi, a member of the prestigious “princeling” class, as the descendants of Communist luminaries are known.

At the 2022 party congress, Xi awarded himself a third five-year term as party leader and filled the top party ranks with loyalists. The No. 2 slot was given to Li Qiang, the party secretary of Shanghai, who lacked Li Keqiang’s national-level experience and later told reporters that his job was to carry out whatever Xi decided.

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Bodeen reported from Taipei, Taiwan.

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