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Monday, February 6, 2023

An Additional Challenge for China’s Leader: Deciding How to Mourn Jiang Zemin

The deaths of top Communist Party leaders in China are usually tense occasions in the political theatre, but this is particularly true today with the loss of Jiang Zemin so soon after a surge of public resistance on a magnitude that has not been witnessed since Mr. Jiang came to power in 1989.

Mr. Jiang passed away on Wednesday at the age of 96, and the current leader of China, Xi Jinping, must preside over the grieving for Mr. Jiang while simultaneously dealing with massive demonstrations over China’s extraordinarily draconian Covid-19 regulations. Under some of the rallies, brave calls have been made for China to resume the road of political reform that was at least conceivable and was even publicly discussed during Mr. Jiang’s rule in the 1990s.

This comes at a time when China is attempting to manage an increase in the number of cases of coronavirus as well as a slowdown in economic growth.

Mr. Xi remarked on Wednesday, according to an official account of his speech to a visiting Laotian leader, “We grieve Comrade Jiang Zemin with a heavy heart, and we will transform our sadness into strength.” On Thursday, the top page of People’s Daily, the party’s newspaper, was fully dominated by pieces on Mr. Jiang’s death and a giant photograph of him. The page was printed in a sombre black and white, and it featured a large image of him.

One of the comments made on Weibo, which is China’s version of social media, remembered the day in 1998 when Mr. Jiang used a megaphone to persuade rescue workers to prevent flood barricades from breaching. According to the statement made at the time, Chinese society was “vigorously advancing, high spirited, singing as we went into a new century.”

There were a lot of other comments that weren’t nearly as enthusiastic. As a leader, Mr. Jiang was capable of being ponderous and oppressive when it was necessary for him to maintain his political position. This included his treatment of adherents of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement. In addition to this, he was well recognised for his inflated sense of self-importance as well as the high rise of his slacks.

But the Chinese people found plenty of reasons to think more fondly of Mr. Jiang’s time in high central office from 1989 to 2004, when China transitioned from a post-Tiananmen political freeze to years of giddy, sometimes reckless, and polluting growth. This was the time period in which China experienced the most rapid economic development since the Cultural Revolution. Although the party had complete control over political life, it did let rights attorneys, commercial news sources, belligerent dissidents, and liberal-minded party intellectuals to take part in public discussion. This represents a degree of freedom that does not exist at the present time.

Another remark brought up the year 1997, when Chinese fans were given the opportunity to see a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet that had a storyline that was considered quite risqué for China at the time. A common sentiment expressed in response to the news of Mr. Jiang’s passing was, “Farewell, and thank you for allowing us all see Titanic that year.”

Several hours after his passing, censors on Weibo moved quickly to restrict comments on the news. Their apparent goal was to prevent relatively harmless nostalgia from turning into biting criticisms of Mr. Xi and the party, which would have been especially relevant following several days of political upheaval. After receiving tens of thousands of likes, the remark including the word “Titanic” was deleted.

Protesters gathered in the hundreds of thousands over the weekend in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, and other cities in China to oppose rigorous, invasive, and onerous regulations targeted at wiping out coronavirus outbreaks. Some people took use of the occasion to demand for democratic reform, freedom of the press, an end to widespread censorship, and even the removal of Mr. Xi and the Communist Party from power.

If the deaths of other key Chinese leaders, such as Deng Xiaoping, serve as a model, Mr. Xi may also preside over the funeral in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The event is expected to bring together thousands of officials, dignitaries, and most likely members of Mr. Jiang’s family. However, because of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, the number of guests may be restricted this time.

Regardless of how modest the ceremony is, though, there will be the hard issue of whether or not to include Hu Jintao, China’s top leader during the decade between Mr. Jiang and Mr. Xi, as well as the question of how to include him. The name of Mr. Hu appeared on a lengthy list of current and former officials who would be responsible for supervising the preparations for the mourning events.

But Mr. Hu, who was known for keeping a low profile while in office, produced a rare ruckus during a party congress in October. This commotion interrupted Mr. Xi’s moment of victory just before he was awarded a new five-year term in power.

On the last day of the congress, Mr. Hu gave the impression of being confused, groped for a paper that was on a table in front of him, and after some disturbance was immediately removed out of the auditorium while other senior officials generally gazed ahead, stone-faced. It was speculated that Mr. Hu was demonstrating in some way against Mr. Xi; however, Mr. Hu’s look of confusion indicated that sickness was the more probable explanation. Nevertheless, Mr. Xi will not want this to happen again.

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