Was the news of former Chinese premier Li Keqiang’s death censored?

By November 2, 2023 International Politics

We came across the following post on a Singapore-based Telegram channel with over 4,300 members:

The post featured a short video and a caption that said the details of the death of China’s former premier, Li Keqiang, had ‘largely been censored’. It added that the news had been ‘taken down’, but that people had still found ways to commemorate Li.

The video stated that the topic of Li’s death on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site similar to Twitter, had received over a billion views in just a few hours, but that censors had ‘stepped in quickly’, and that ‘almost all comments on the topic have been removed from social media… even his name, Li Keqiang, has been blocked’.

News of Li’s Passing Remains Online

When we did a web search, we found that news and circumstances of Li’s death was still widely available. Li Keqiang, China’s former premier—the second highest-ranking position in China, was confirmed to have died of a heart attack on Friday, as reported by state media and relayed by various foreign media outlets.

We accessed the English pages of various state-controlled Chinese news sites, including the People’s Daily, CCTV, Xinhua, China Daily, CGTN and Global Times and found that all of them had reported Li’s death. However, all of them had used the same headline and same photo of Li, and large sections of the articles were identical, suggesting that the news had been tightly coordinated.

When we accessed Weibo and searched for the topic of Li using his name in Chinese, we found that the topic of his death was still accessible, and had amassed over 30.2 billion views.

Censorship and Conspiracy Theories Amid Tense Political Atmosphere

Digging deeper into the reporting of Li’s death, it becomes clear that the Chinese authorities have taken several measures to censor discussion of the topic, even if the news remains available.

China Digital Times, a US-based organisation that has reliably tracked censorship in China, published leaked censorship instructions from authorities to journalists and editors that included directions to ‘exclusively use copy from mainstream central outlets’, and to ‘pay particular attention to overly effusive comments (in the comment sections)’.

Reports have also indicated that censors have blocked terms interpreted as veiled expressions used by Chinese social media users to communicate discontent with the government and current leader Xi Jinping.

One notable example is the song ‘Unfortunately, It’s Not You’, a song by the Malaysian singer Fish Leong. Users had posted, played and commented under the song’s music video as a means to implicitly suggest their regret that Li had died while Xi lives on. Searches for the song and the singer’s name were subsequently blocked by censors, along with a hashtag that translated to ‘The one who should die hasn’t’.

Comments that praised Li’s stature and record as an official, such as those that referred to him as ‘a great man’ or ‘a good premier for the people’ were also deleted, leaving more generic comments such as ‘rest in peace’. We also noted that the posts on Weibo on topics related to Li’s death were limited to ‘Blue V’ accounts, which are official organisation accounts run by the government, media, schools, businesses, or other registered websites.

Analysts have noted that the deaths of former leaders have in the past been catalysts for expressions of discontent against the Chinese leadership, with protests emerging in the wake of popular figures such as Zhou Enlai and Hu Yaobang, with the latter culminating in a violent crackdown on protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Li’s death also comes at a moment of political intrigue in China, with several top officials having disappeared from public view amid their removal from power. These include former defence minister Li Shangfu and former foreign minister Qin Gang. Hu Jintao, who led the country prior to Xi Jinping, has also not been seen in public since he was escorted out of the 2022 national congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Li was considered by some to have been a rival of Xi Jinping throughout his political career, who represented competing ideologies and factions of the CCP. These circumstances, combined with Li’s relative youth, have attracted conspiracy theories over the nature of Li’s death. Some Chinese social media users expressed scepticism that Li had died of natural causes, given that former top officials receive careful medical attention even after they have left office. The censoring of the discussion around Li’s death appears to have amplified such theories.

An Unreliable Source with an Agenda

When we examined the source of the video in the Telegram chat, we found that it originated from Epoch TV, the video service for the news site Epoch Times. A link included by the post author also directed to the news site NTD (New Tang Dynasty). The Epoch Times and NTD are both owned by the US-based Epoch Media Group and were founded by practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual-religious movement that was forcibly repressed and banned in China.

Both the Epoch Times and NTD have extensive records of promoting conspiracy theories, and we have previously debunked false claims by these outlets that targeted the current leadership of China.

In conclusion, we find that the Telegram post has some accurate elements—that much of the discussion surrounding Li Keqiang’s death has been censored. However, we find the post overall to be misleading and mostly false due to suggestions that all mention of Li’s passing, including his name, had been erased, along with the details of his death.

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