Mao Secretary Turned Critic Li Rui Dies at 101

Mao Secretary Turned Critic Li Rui Dies at 101

Li Rui, a former personal secretary to Mao Zedong turned fierce critic of the authoritarian leader and his successors, died on Saturday in Beijing at age 101 from cancer-related organ failure. At The New York Times, reporting on Li’s death, Ian Johnson recalls his life as a trusted confidant to Mao; a purged Party member under remote re-education; a rehabilitated post-Mao Party bureaucrat; a sensitive historian; and finally a modern advocate for free expression, liberal values, and historical accuracy:

Blunt, brash and quick-witted, Mr. Li’s experience epitomized the hopes and disappointments of a generation. His perseverance and longevity made him one of the most influential government critics in the seven-decade history of the People’s Republic of China. His work also helped reshape historians’ understanding of key moments in modern Chinese history — especially Mao’s responsibility for the catastrophic Great Leap Forward, in which famine killed more than 35 million people — while his political connections allowed him to protect moderate critics and make open appeals for free speech and constitutional government.

But Mr. Li was no dissident. He died a Communist Party member, enjoying the privileges that came from having joined the party in 1937, earlier than almost anyone else alive in China. He had a large apartment, a generous pension and lavish benefits, such as top-flight medical care. The party imprisoned him, exiled him, and almost starved him to death, but even when it expelled him he eventually returned in hopes of effecting change from within.

“He saw himself as a conscience of the revolution and the party,” said Roderick MacFarquhar, a professor of Chinese history at Harvard University. “But he had grave doubts about the system he spent his life serving.” (Mr. MacFarquhar died on Sunday.) […] [Source]

Li’s funeral and state burial is reportedly scheduled this week at Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery, a site reserved for revolutionary heroes and high-ranking officials. At The Guardian, Lily Kuo reports that Li’s daughter Nanyang Li is boycotting the official service as it goes against her father’s stated wishes, and notes that censors appear to have taken effort to mute news of his death:

“I asked him [in 2008 and again last year at his 100th birthday] the exact same question: do you want to go to Babaoshan? Do you want a formal funeral and your body to be covered by the [Chinese Communist party] flag?’” she told the Guardian.

“He paused a long long time, thinking, then he very clearly said: ‘I should go back to my hometown and be buried near my parents because I left home so early and never took care of my mother.’”

[…] Nanyang, who lives in the US, said she would not be attending the funeral in protest.

[…] [Despite his veteran cadre status,] state media did not report his death widely. Articles and comments commemorating him appeared to have been censored.

Nanyang believes her father lost hope in the party when the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, removed term limits last year, potentially allowing him to stay in power indefinitely. In one of his final interviews, given to Voice of America last year, he agreed with a turn of phrase circulating at the time: “Mao’s mistakes are not corrected and Xi accumulates his evil.” […] [Source]

While domestic state media was measured in covering Li’s death, the English-language Global Times was sure to offer an interpretation of Li’s legacy to counter Western coverage:

Also on Twitter, Wilson Center fellow and China foreign policy scholar Joseph Torigian noted good news on the destination of Li’s personal files, and also highlighted the paradox of his politics:

Read more about Li Rui, via CDT.


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