Thousands gather in Beijing to mourn the demise of Communist Party critic, Li Rui

Hundreds of mourners paid their last respects to Mao’s former secretary Li Rui on Wednesday at a funeral that went against the final wishes of a man who became a bold critic of the ruling Communist Party.

Despite the dearth of public information on the time and place of the funeral, crowds lined up to see Li’s casket, which was draped under the red Communist hammer-and-sickle flag at the Baobashan Cemetery for revolutionary heroes and party officials.

Bundled in dark-coloured winter coats with white flowers pinned on their lapels, many were gray-haired and in their seventies – just one generation younger than Li, who died Saturday at the age of 101.

“He is a good person,” one of Li’s relatives, who only shared his surname Gu, told AFP.

That is why so many “people have come to send him off on this last journey,” Gu said.

“The more old people there are in China like Li Rui, the better,” he said, describing Li as a proletarian revolutionary. “He fought for his beliefs all his life – I think this is everyone’s right.”

Inside the funeral parlour, Li’s body rested in a partially open casket.

Due to the large volume of mourners queueing to pay their respects, visitors were rushed into the room in small groups, where they bowed in front of Li’s casket and shook hands with his family members before being ushered out.

But Li wanted to be buried in his hometown in Hunan province and would have been against having the Communist flag at his funeral, according to his daughter, who boycotted the event.

“I believe that my father’s spirit is alive up in heaven, and definitely crying out and shouting as he looks down at the Li Rui covered by a party flag stained with the fresh blood of the people,” Li Nanyang, who lives in San Francisco, told AFP.

“As his daughter, I want to protect his personal dignity,” she said, adding that concerns about her personal safety in returning to China also factored into her decision to avoid the funeral.

“Li Rui is a person who had an independent mind under the ironclad rule of the Communist Party,” she said.

Despite Li’s position alongside China’s paramount leader in the mid-1950s, he quickly fell out with the Communist Party after criticising the failures of Mao’s Great Leap Forward policy, which unleashed havoc and famine across the country.

Li was expelled from the party and spent eight years in prison during the Cultural Revolution, but he was rehabilitated in 1979.

In the later years of his life, he became an outspoken advocate for political reform, publishing articles calling for the party to become a European-style socialist party.

In 2010, Li was part of a group of former top Communist officials and media leaders who issued an open letter to China’s government that pointedly called for freedom of press and expression.

Last year, Li was a rare prominent voice that opposed a constitutional change which removed presidential term limits and paved the way for President Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely.