China: Death of former president creates dilemma for Xi

Leader must preside over mourning of the popular Jiang Zemin while grappling with protest fallout

The deaths of Chinese communist leaders are always fraught moments of political theatre and especially so now with the passing of Jiang Zemin soon after a wave of public defiance on a scale unseen since Jiang came to power in 1989.

China’s sternly autocratic current leader, Xi Jinping, must preside over the mourning for Jiang, who died Wednesday at 96, while he also grapples with the fallout of widespread protests against China’s exceptionally stringent Covid restrictions. The demonstrations have at times also boldly called for China to return to the path of political liberalisation that seemed at least thinkable, even openly discussable, under Jiang during the 1990s.

How Xi orchestrates that feat – paying tribute to Jiang while preventing him from becoming a symbolic cudgel against Xi’s politics – will be another challenge for him in the coming weeks, as China tries to manage rising coronavirus cases and an economic slowdown.

“We mourn Comrade Jiang Zemin with a heavy heart and will turn our grief into strength,” Xi said Wednesday, according to an official summary of his comments to a visiting Laotian leader. The digital homepage of People’s Daily, the party’s main newspaper, turned to a mournful black and white.

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“How they mourn his death may potentially provoke more anger, even though Jiang Zemin never enjoyed the popularity Hu Yaobang did,” said Lynette H Ong, a political scientist at the University of Toronto who studies China, referring to the leader whose sudden death in 1989 ignited the Tiananmen Square protest movement. “At the very least, it will give the people a legitimate reason to congregate and mourn.”

Almost instantly, the announcement of Jiang’s passing brought a torrent of online tributes from Chinese people. Quite a few made thinly veiled, often sardonic comparisons between Jiang and Xi, whose authoritarian policies have taken censorship and ideological controls to new heights.

One comment on Weibo, a social media service in China, recalled when Jiang in 1998 used a megaphone to urge rescuers to stop flood barriers from breaking. The comment said Chinese society at the time was “vigorously advancing, high spirited, singing as we advanced into a new era”.

Many other remarks were not quite as effusive. As a leader, Jiang could be turgid and repressive when his political survival called for it, including against followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. He also was well known for his high opinion of himself and his equally high-hitched pants.

But Chinese people found plenty of reasons to think more fondly of Jiang’s time in high central office from 1989 to 2004, when China shifted from a post-Tiananmen political freeze to years of giddy, sometimes reckless and polluting growth. The party tightly controlled political life, but it allowed rights lawyers, commercial news outlets, combative dissidents and liberal-minded party scholars to participate in public debate – a modicum of freedom that does not exist now.

“Toad, we blamed you wrongly before; you’re the ceiling, not the floor,” said one comment, citing a popular nickname for Jiang, drawing on his squat figure and large glasses.

Another comment recalled 1997, when Chinese audiences were allowed to enjoy Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in a movie with a relatively risqué story for that time in China. “Farewell,” said one popular comment marking Jiang’s death, “Thank you for letting us all watch Titanic that year.”

Hours after his death, censors on Weibo quickly moved to restrict comments on the news, apparently to prevent relatively harmless nostalgia from turning into barbed criticisms of Xi and the party, especially after several days of political turbulence. The Titanic comment was erased after garnering tens of thousands of likes.

“In death, Hu Yaobang became a heroic martyr, while in life he didn’t enjoy that reputation at all,” said Geremie R Barmé, a Sinologist in New Zealand. “In the nostalgic haze of today, the same could happen with Jiang Zemin.”

Last weekend, protesters in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu and other Chinese cities gathered in the hundreds and thousands to denounce stringent, intrusive and onerous policies aimed at stamping out coronavirus cases. Some seized on the opportunity to also call for democratic change, freedom of the press, an end to pervasive censorship, and even the removal of Xi and the Communist Party.

The defiance had some distant echoes with the movement of 1989, when the death of Hu Yaobang, a reform-minded leader who had been pushed from power, ignited student protests that occupied Tiananmen Square until an armed crackdown that reached the square June 4th. The deaths of other Chinese leaders have also become occasions for protest and dissent, especially Zhou Enlai in 1976.

Xi could use the mourning rituals for Jiang to try to “recover from his isolated situation”, Zhang Lifan, a historian in Beijing, said in written answers to questions about the death of Jiang.

“Whether this will be a release from the nightmare of June 4th or bring it back, we just have to wait and see,” Zhang said.

But any repeat of 1989 appears extremely unlikely under Xi’s heavy net of security, suggested Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation who analyses the Chinese Communist Party. “The death of Jiang Zemin will not have a ripple effect in Chinese politics,” he said.

Even so, Xi must orchestrate the funerary events to ensure that it stays that way. In announcing Jiang’s death, the party paid tribute to his achievements, especially in advancing economic changes and modernising China’s military. It also urged the country to rally around Xi.

An announcement on mourning arrangements for Jiang indicated that a memorial service would be held and that – following party custom – international leaders would not be invited.

If the deaths of previous big Chinese leaders such as Deng Xiaoping are a guide, Xi may also preside over the service in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, bringing together thousands of officials, dignitaries and probably Jiang’s family members. But fears of the spread of the coronavirus may limit the guest list this time.

No matter how small the ceremony, however, there will also be the tricky question of whether and how to include Hu Jintao, China’s top leader in the decade between Jiang and Xi. Hu’s name was on a long list of officials and retired officials who will oversee arrangements for the mourning activities.

But Hu, notoriously buttoned down while in power, caused a rare commotion during a party congress in October that disrupted Xi’s triumphant moment before he won a new five-year term in power.

On the last day of the congress, Hu appeared dazed, reached for a document on a table in front of him and after some commotion was abruptly escorted out of the hall while other senior officials mostly stared ahead, stone-faced. Theories spread that Hu was somehow protesting against Xi, though Hu’s confused expression suggests that illness was the more likely cause. Still, Xi will not want a repeat.

– This article originally appeared in The New York Times.