China's festival for the dead gives political focus to the living

Reports emerge of police patrols in locations that laid flowers for late premier Li Keqiang last year.
By Qian Lang and Chen Zifei for RFA Mandarin
China's festival for the dead gives political focus to the living People honor their ancestors at a cemetery during the Qing Ming festival in Hong Kong, April 4, 2024.
Louise Delmotte/AP

As people of Chinese descent mark the passing of loved ones at the grave-sweeping festival Qing Ming this week, the rituals for the dead have also prompted political statements from the living, amid social media reports of police patrols in areas that saw spontaneous mass mourning for late former premier Li Keqiang last year.

Qing Ming has long been marked by dissidents in a bid to honor the memories of people who have fought for human rights and justice, while police often move in swiftly either to forestall graveside commemorations or to detain those trying to get to politically sensitive sites, as part of a nationwide "stability maintenance" operation.

Years after the disappearance of prominent human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng his wife Geng He, who escaped to the U.S. with her son and daughter in January 2009, vowed to make offerings to her husband's spirit outside the Consulate General of the People's Republic of China in San Francisco every year on Qing Ming, based on the assumption that he must be dead, as a protest against official silence on his fate.

Not far from San Francisco, veteran democracy activist Zhao Changqing posted to his X account: "Suddenly I remembered that today is Qingming Festival! It’s drizzling in the Greater Bay Area… Stop on the side of the road and post a rain map to commemorate — All the loved ones I’ve lost before!"

Along with a photo of rain on a car windshield, Zhao wrote that he wanted to remember the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, as well as late 2010 Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and late rights lawyer Li Baiguang "who died for their democratic ideals" and "all compatriots who have died for China's progress, such as ... Li Keqiang."

Floral tributes

Zhao wasn't the only person thinking about late former premier Li Keqiang, whose sudden death following his early retirement in sparked a wave of mass floral tributes in cities across the country last October and November.

Current affairs commentator Cai Shengkun reposted a video clip of a sea of funereal white and yellow wreaths outside the late premier's former residence in Anhui's Hefei city that appeared to date from soon after Li's sudden death.

Cai said "nearly 3 million people" had traveled to pay their respects to Li over the course of two days in Hefei, the provincial capital of Anhui, last year.

"Hefei mourns Li Keqiang at Qing Ming!" Cai wrote on his X account, adding that Hefei taxi drivers had last year refused to accept money for taking passengers to Hongxing Road, while flower shop owners had provided floral tributes to mourners "at cost."

"A supermarket owner moved boxes of mineral water to sell at the roadside, and passersby conscientiously scanned the QR code to buy water," he wrote. "Several of my young friends in Hefei went to the subway station to serve as volunteer guides in their spare time."

"This was the people of Hefei ... paying their highest respects to someone from their town," he wrote.

According to the X citizen journalist account "Mr Li is not your teacher," someone also left a floral tribute to Li under the statue of Sun Yat-sen in the northeastern city of Shenyang on April 4, although "the flowers disappeared an hour later."

On the same day, police in the central city of Zhengzhou were patrolling Qianxi Square "to prevent people from mourning Li Keqiang during the Qingming Festival," the account said in a caption along with a video clip of the square.

Another social media post reported that police were stationed every 10 meters, or 33 feet, along the Bianhe River Bridge in Suzhou in the eastern province of Anhui to forestall anyone thinking of leaving a tribute to Li Keqiang. 

RFA was unable to verify these reports independently, but the locations mentioned did see mass spontaneous floral tributes to Li last year.

Disguised protest

Beijing-based dissident Ji Feng said the tributes to Li, both past and present, were a form of disguised protest against the current leadership under ruling Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.

"People need an outlet for their grievances," Ji said. "The greatest sorrow of our nation is that we always lose the people who aren't too bad."

He cited the mass outpouring of popular mourning for late ousted premier Hu Yaobang in April 1989 that sparked weeks of pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen Square that summer, in which Ji also took part.

"Hu Yaobang also did some bad stuff in government, but he was better than the rest of them," Ji said. "He overturned a lot of miscarriages of justice [left over from the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution]."

He said late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang also wasn't perfect as a leader, but was widely mourned when he died after being held under house arrest for years following his fall from power in the wake of the 1989 student-led protests on Tiananmen Square.

Beijing-based commentator Si Ling said Li is also seen as one of the better leaders of recent years in China.

"Li Keqiang was relatively clean when he was in power, and people still miss his scientific approach to economic policy," Si said.

"Now the entire political current is taking a sharp turn to the left, and people are deeply disgusted by this," he said.

"People's mourning of Li Keqiang is an expression of the quality of life they had back then ... it's an expression of nostalgia," Si said.

Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou attends a ceremony at the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor in the northern Chinese province of Shaanxi, April 4, 2024. (Ma Ying-jeou’s office)
Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou attends a ceremony at the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor in the northern Chinese province of Shaanxi, April 4, 2024. (Ma Ying-jeou’s office)

Tomb of the Yellow Emperor

Meanwhile, former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou marked Qing Ming with a visit to the tomb of the Yellow Emperor, the mythical figure from whom Chinese people are said to descend.

Ma, whose Kuomintang party once ruled China, fled to Taiwan after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong’s communists in 1949, ruled as an authoritarian dictatorship for several decades before being voted out in democratic elections in 2016, called on the island’s young people to remember their Chinese roots following the lavish ceremony at the Huangdi Mausoleum, flanked by Chinese Communist Party officials.

“I hope that young Taiwanese people will keep in mind the root of their nation in Chinese culture, as well as the pride of being the descendants of the Yellow Emperor,” Ma told reporters on Thursday.

Ma’s repeated trips to China have been criticized by Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party as undermining its government, because his insistence on a “Chinese” identity for Taiwan shores up Beijing’s territorial claim on the island.

Taiwan has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor formed part of the 73-year-old People’s Republic of China, and most of its 23 million people have no wish to give up their sovereignty or democratic way of life to be ruled by China, according to multiple public opinion polls in recent years.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Roseanne Gerin.


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