China has paused to remember the late former leader, Jiang Zemin, with a rollcall of Beijing’s political elite attending memorial services including the former leader Hu Jintao in his first public appearances since his shocking removal from a top Communist party meeting in October.
Sirens wailed across the country on Tuesday as the Communist party eulogised Jiang on a national day of mourning, hailing him as a patriot who “dedicated his life” to the country and weathered “political storms”.
The highly orchestrated mourning activities saw state and social media go black and white, and security services out in force to ensure there were no large gatherings on the streets after rare anti-zero Covid protests in recent weeks.
Jiang died in Shanghai on Wednesday last week at the age of 96 and left a mixed legacy, taking power in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and leading China towards its emergence as a powerhouse on the global stage.
A public memorial service attended by China’s political elite began at 10am in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, bedecked with a giant portrait of the late leader as well as slogans lauding him and a massive flower display. On one side of the auditorium hung a banner saying: “Jiang Zemin is immortal”. A central wreath said: “You will always live in our hearts”.
President Xi Jinping told assembled party faithful at the hall: “He dedicated his whole life and energy to the Chinese people, dedicated his life to fighting for national independence, people’s liberation, national prosperity, and people’s happiness.
“In the late 1980s and early 1990s, serious political storms occurred at home and abroad, and world socialism experienced severe complications. Some western countries imposed so-called ‘sanctions’ on China,” Xi told the audience.
“The CPC [Chinese Communist party] Central Committee calls on the whole party, the army and the people of all ethnic groups in China to turn grief into strength,” Xi added.
Xi’s speech also contained references that perhaps spoke to those in China who protested last week. The rallies across major Chinese cities were primarily over the stringent zero-Covid restrictions but some – particularly in Shanghai – openly criticised the government and Xi.
“In 1989, when a serious political turmoil occurred in China, Comrade Jiang resolutely supported and implemented the Party Central Committee’s decision to take a clear stand against turmoil,” Xi said in his speech, referring to the Tiananmen protests which ended in the bloody massacre of demonstrators by soldiers – an unmentionable event in China.
“The decision to safeguard the fundamental interests of the people relies on the vast number of party members, cadres and the masses to effectively safeguard Shanghai’s stability,” he said, in apparent reference to Jiang’s leadership role in Shanghai at the time, but also a potential nod to those in the city who called for an end to Xi’s rule last week.
Looking frail and distraught, Jiang’s wife, Wang Yeping, sat in a wheelchair in the front row. A nationwide “three-minute silence” was held as sirens sounded.
Among the attendees was former CCP leader, Hu. The 79-year-old attended a tribute for Jiang Zemin at a military hospital in Beijing on Monday, and the memorial event on Tuesday. The appearances were the first sightings of Hu since the concluding session of the 20th party congress, China’s most important political meeting.
At the congress, Hu was escorted out of his seat next to Xi. He appeared confused and resistant as he was led out of the room in full view of international media. State media said he had been ill and needed to rest, but the incident sparked rampant speculation and was seen as highly symbolic of the political purging Xi led at that meeting, expelling potential opposition figures including all members of the Hu-led rival Communist Youth League faction.
Under the increasingly authoritarian rule of Xi, and with a backdrop of last week’s extraordinary protests, security was on high alert across the country.
In Jiang’s home town of Yangzhou, about 100 people gathered in front of his former residence to observe the silence after which they were swiftly dispersed by police.
Flags across the country were at half-mast as were those at Chinese government buildings overseas. Stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen suspended trading for three minutes, as did the Chinese Gold and Silver Exchange in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s bourse suspended the display of data on external screens at its offices while senior executives observed the silence. And in the semi-autonomous city’s harbour, hundreds of vessels honked for three minutes, while officials and government employees observed three minutes of silence.
Public entertainment in mainland China was also suspended on Tuesday, with some online games such as the popular League of Legends announcing a day’s pause.
Jiang leaves a controversial legacy. State media has hailed him as a great communist revolutionary, highlighting his part in quelling “serious political turmoil”. But his rule also saw the repression of political opposition and religious minorities, as well as a tolerance for the widespread corruption that accompanied China’s economic rise.
Jiang died of leukaemia and multiple organ failure after medical treatments failed, according to state media.
His body was cremated Monday in Beijing at a ceremony attended by President Xi and other top leaders, Xinhua said.
The anti-Covid lockdown protests that flared up in China last week were the most widespread public demonstrations in the country since rallies calling for political reform in 1989.
And despite Jiang’s role in helping to crush the 1989 rallies, his death has prompted nostalgia among some Chinese for a time seen as more liberal and tolerant of dissent.
“The Jiang era, while not the most prosperous era, was a more tolerant one,” one user on the Twitter-like Weibo wrote after his death.
“I have heard many criticisms of him, but the fact that he allowed critical voices to exist shows how he is worthy of praise,” wrote another.
In retirement, Jiang had become the subject of lighthearted memes among millennial and Gen Z Chinese fans, who called themselves “toad worshippers” in reference to his frog-like countenance and quirky mannerisms.
More than half a million commenters flooded CCTV’s post announcing his death on Weibo within an hour, many referring to him as “Grandpa Jiang”.
After the announcement, the websites of state media and government-owned businesses turned black-and-white, as did apps such as Alipay, Taobao and even McDonald’s China.
With Agence France-Presse