China’s reform and opening up in dire straits after passing of Li Keqiang?

Later generations of Chinese may take reform and opening up for granted, but this key national policy and strategy was in fact hard fought by an earlier generation of leaders such as the late former Premier Li Keqiang. With great outpourings of grief seen after Li's demise, are the Chinese people learning something about cherishing something only after it's gone?
People dine near a screen broadcasting obituary of China's former Premier Li Keqiang during the evening news, following his death, at a restaurant in Beijing, China, on 27 October 2023. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)
People dine near a screen broadcasting obituary of China's former Premier Li Keqiang during the evening news, following his death, at a restaurant in Beijing, China, on 27 October 2023. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

The untimely death of former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has sparked widespread mourning among the Chinese people. Foreign countries and key dignitaries have also expressed their condolences. 

Those unfamiliar with the situation may be baffled by the outpouring of emotion. While he was known as a people-oriented premier, Li doesn't appear to have made exceptional contributions during his ten-year tenure. So why are the Chinese people so saddened by his passing?

Reform and opening up cannot be taken for granted 

In my writings over recent years, I have continually expressed support for reform and opening up. Some mainland Chinese readers could not understand this: for many Chinese born in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, reform and opening up is par for the course. A cooked duck can't very well fly away again, can it? Was it worth rallying so loudly for reform and opening up?   

For many Chinese today, reform and opening up is likely something they would “cherish deeply only after it is gone”.

While I am not prescient, when we cast a wider view across the long river of history, two truths become evident:

Firstly, reform and opening up most certainly did not come naturally for modern China, but was hard fought. Since 1840, countless generations of selfless luminaries had left no stone unturned, trailblazing a path after countless tries and failures. They sacrificed blood, sweat and tears to set China on the path of prosperity and strength. For many Chinese today, reform and opening up is likely something they would “cherish deeply only after it is gone”. It is not hard to observe such a sentiment from the profound mourning of Li’s death by the people.

Secondly, reform and opening up is not one of but the fundamental national policy and strategy upon which modern China and the Chinese people built their lives. There has been an attempt to diminish reform and opening up as “a crucial move” (关键一招), treating it as some sort of expedient manoeuvre. Such thinking is either misguided or harbours an ulterior motive. 

A Chinese flag flies at half-mast in honor of former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on the day of his cremation in Beijing, China, on 2 November 2023. (Andrea Verdelli/Bloomberg)
A Chinese flag flies at half-mast in honor of former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on the day of his cremation in Beijing, China, on 2 November 2023. (Andrea Verdelli/Bloomberg)

For Chinese society and culture, only the path of reform and opening up represents new thought, new times and a new world. It is the only right way forward that leads to a bright, hopeful future for China. Other divergent paths, no matter how they are packaged or gussied up and given a fancy name, are either fraught with danger or lead to a dead end, and offer no way forward. 

For those who are unconvinced or unafraid of squandering their energy, they may continue to waste their efforts until they fall apart.   

Li, even amid the torrent of rhetoric calling for doing away with reform and opening up, proclaimed to the world that the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers won't flow backwards (长江黄河不会倒流)...

Cherishing what is lost

Amid the Chinese public’s mourning of Li, external observers would be reminded of how the Chinese people mourned the loss of key leaders Zhou Enlai and Hu Yaobang, and the scenes of protest and clamouring for China’s prospects and future. 

Evidently, the reasons why Zhou, Hu and now Li are much respected and missed by the Chinese people are because they fought for the people's welfare and did their all to safeguard the country’s interests amid an extremely challenging political and societal environment. 

Zhou championed the “Four Modernisations” against the far-left countercurrent of the Cultural Revolution. Hu boldly put into practice democracy and rule of law during a crucial time when reforms to China's political system were beset with challenges. Li, even amid the torrent of rhetoric calling for doing away with reform and opening up, proclaimed to the world that the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers won't flow backwards (长江黄河不会倒流), and that China’s great undertaking of reform and opening up would continue.     

What does it mean to cherish something only after it is gone? The simplest examples are air and water. While we normally think that they are readily available, it is not until moments of hardship and challenge that we realise that air and water can mean the difference between life and death, and therefore come to cherish them dearly.

Now that the banner of Li is gone, the future of China’s reform and opening up is even more bleak.  

Morning commuters pass the CCTV tower in Beijing, China on 30 October 2023. (Bloomberg)
Commuters pass the CCTV tower in Beijing, China on 30 October 2023. (Bloomberg)

China has moved away from reform and opening up in recent years. Has the experience been good? Despite the predictions that say otherwise, many people insist on trying it out.

The bitter fruits of these attempts are becoming apparent, and the latest one is the devastating loss of former Premier Li Keqiang, a champion of China’s reform and opening up. Now that the banner of Li is gone, the future of China’s reform and opening up is even more bleak.  

Now up to the people

Li was among the first batch of college students to enrol into university after the country reinstated the national college entrance exams in 1977. He entered Peking University, which was at that time full of vitality, awaiting to do great things that had been left undone, and dared to be a pioneer in unchartered territory.

His generation of college students seized every minute and second, worked fervently and desperately pursued knowledge, striving to compensate for the decade lost to the catastrophic Cultural Revolution. His generation of college students also worried about the country and people, bade farewell to far-left foolishness and took on the sacred mission of revitalising China. 

Hence, Li’s generation of Chinese were the direct beneficiaries, firm defenders and passionate champions of reform and opening up. They tasted the goodness of reform and opening up as their bitter fates were turned around, which strengthened their belief in the value of advancing reform and opening up to usher in an even more glorious future for the nation.     

The people are not only mourning Li’s untimely death but also shedding tears for reform and opening up, which is now confronting the possibility of an early demise.

Mourners pay their respects in front of the childhood home of former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Hefei, Anhui province, China, 31 October 2023. (Andrea Verdelli/Bloomberg)
Mourners pay their respects in front of the childhood home of former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Hefei, Anhui province, China, 31 October 2023. (Andrea Verdelli/Bloomberg)

Over the past decade, Li pushed on with his determination, efforts and struggles. Although he relented in the end, he firmly believed that “heaven is watching”. 

Now, this key flag-bearer of China’s reform and opening up has unfortunately fallen when China’s future and destiny needed him the most. As a line in a poem goes: “The master has passed before the final victory is earned, making future generations of heroes weep.” 

The people are not only mourning Li’s untimely death but also shedding tears for reform and opening up, which is now confronting the possibility of an early demise.

Former Chinese President Liu Shaoqi once famously said, “It is fortunate that history is written by the people.” Today, the invincible force that can truly carry on Li’s unfinished business and persist in defending and advancing reform and opening up will also come from the people.

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