BEIJING -- Li Rui, a former secretary to Chinese leader Mao Zedong who later turned into an outspoken critic of the Communist Party, died at a hospital in Beijing on Saturday at the age of 101.
Born in 1917, Li joined the party in 1937 and served as a personal secretary to Mao, the founding father of Communist China. He was expelled from the party for criticizing its Great Leap Forward campaign, which led to a massive famine, and was imprisoned for eight years during the Cultural Revolution. He served in various posts after regaining party membership, including vice head of the influential department that handles personnel assignments within the party.
After retiring, Li pushed to restore the reputations of two former party general secretaries: Hu Yaobang, pushed out of power over his handling of student protests calling for democracy and whose death triggered the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989; and Zhao Ziyang, purged for sympathizing with the students. Days before that fateful June 4, Zhao had gone out into the streets and tried to tell the students to stand down.
In 2010, when pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo was named the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison, Li criticized China's suppression of free speech. Li supported a magazine calling for reforms and is said to have made remarks critical of President Xi Jinping.
Li had been hospitalized since last March. According to Hong Kong media, he told his daughter that he did not want the party flag draped over his coffin, nor to be buried at Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery -- the main resting place for the highest-ranking party members.
Conservative opinion leader Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the nationalistic Global Times, wrote on social media that Li "demonstrated a special way of boycotting China's mainstream path." While treated as a veteran party cadre, Li was also supported by domestic anti-establishment forces and some Western powers, Hu noted.