The body of the former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin has arrived in Beijing after being driven through the streets of Shanghai in a highly choreographed scene contrasting sharply with protests calling for the removal of the Communist party.
China Central Television in its main evening news broadcast on Thursday showed footage of a hearse carrying Jiang’s body through Shanghai, while people dressed in black – likely to have been government employees – lined the streets and bowed their heads in silence.
Authorities appeared to be confident that Jiang’s death would not spark spontaneous public mourning that could spiral out of control just days after protests in Shanghai and other cities over coronavirus restrictions.
State funerals and the commemoration of dead Chinese leaders are highly controlled by the Communist party, and spontaneous tributes among ordinary citizens have often been suppressed.
On arrival in Beijing, Jiang’s body – wearing his signature black-rimmed glasses – could be seen in a glass coffin carried out of a plane by 12 People’s Liberation Army soldiers.
Xi Jinping and other party leaders, all dressed in black and wearing white flowers on their lapels, bowed in a ceremony at a Beijing airport.
Jiang’s death was accorded the highest level of protocol, with state media referring to him as “a great Marxist and proletarian revolutionist, statesman, military strategist, diplomat, a proven communist fighter, an outstanding leader of socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
State television’s hour-long main newscast on Wednesday dedicated the first 45 minutes to coverage of Jiang’s death. Tributes continued to dominate most of the main news on Thursday. Jiang’s death also occupied the first two pages of the party mouthpiece People’s Daily. State media said a memorial service would be held at 10am on 6 December and members of the public were expected to observe a three-minute silence to the sound of sirens.
The high-profile official commemoration is a striking contrast to how the party handled the death of his predecessor, Zhao Ziyang, a sympathiser of the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement that was crushed by the military in 1989.
He was ousted for his “political mistake” after the crackdown and was put under house arrest for 16 years until his death in 2005, which was a highly hushed-up affair. State TV announced his death at the end of newscasts in one sentence and the People’s Daily placed the one-sentence announcement above the weather report on the back page.
Security posts were placed on every street corner along the 2.5-mile Avenue of Eternal Peace on the day of Zhao’s unpublicised funeral, where police, security and neighbourhood officers were on guard to take action against any display of spontaneous mourning. Dozens gathered near the funeral venue were barred from going closer, dissidents were confined to their homes, and foreign journalists were followed by police.
Chinese authorities were wary of the same kind of public mourning that broke out in April 1989 when Zhao’s predecessor, Hu Yaobang, died. The mourning of the liberal leader on Tiananmen Square morphed into a nationwide pro-democracy movement, which was brutally put down by the military on 4 June.
Jiang replaced Zhao as party chief, elevated by the then paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, for his loyalty and his crackdown on pro-democracy activities in Shanghai, where he was party secretary at the time.
Analysts say Jiang, a party conservative albeit possessed with flair and showmanship, was a very different kind of leader. “Jiang was very different from Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Hu was highly respected for having been ousted for his liberalisation initiatives,” said Prof Chung Kim-wah, a social scientist formerly with the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “In terms of reverence and mourning, people are unlikely to have the same feelings [about Jiang]. I don’t think they are worried about it.”