Jiang Zemin was 96. Rumours of the former Chinese leader’s death had circulated so often in recent years that when the news first broke on 30 November that he had finally succumbed to leukaemia and multiple organ failure, it was not a shock. Yet the timing could be a serious problem for Xi Jinping.
As an obsessive student of Chinese history, and a man who has prioritised control and domestic stability above all else, Xi will be only too aware of how the deaths of former senior figures have led to mass protests in past decades.
Two incidents, in particular, come to mind. When Zhou Enlai, China’s long-time premier under Mao Zedong and a widely beloved figure, died from cancer in January 1976, thousands of people travelled to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to lay wreaths and banners in his memory during the annual Qingming (tomb-sweeping) festival in April, a holiday when families traditionally gather to remember the dead. The authorities cleared the flowers overnight, presumably hoping to put an end to the impromptu memorial, but instead tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands of people turned out to protest.
“As the crowd grew disorderly, mourners started invading nearby government offices, overturning vehicles, lighting fires, and threatening police,” wrote the Beijing-based historian Jeremiah Jenne. Nominally, they were protesting the official handling of Zhou’s death, but it was also a chance to voice the long pent-up frustrations with the ageing dictator Mao’s rule – who had then been in power for 26 years – and his decade-long Cultural Revolution, which had plunged the country into chaos. By contrast, Zhou was seen as a more moderate figure, who had helped to tame Mao’s worst excesses (although in fact, he had gone along with plenty of them). The protests were declared “counter-revolutionary” and those deemed to be ringleaders were arrested and sentenced to hard labour, but it was not the last demonstration of its kind.
Thirteen years later, in April 1989, the death of the reform-minded leader Hu Yaobang, who was general secretary from 1982-87 before he was forced out by party hard-liners, again triggered mass protests in Beijing. Hundreds of students from the most prestigious universities – Peking University and Tsinghua (where Xi studied in the 1970s) – marched into Tiananmen Square and hung a banner with Hu’s portrait on the Monument to the People’s Heroes. Again, huge crowds joined them. Hu’s death was the catalyst, but the fuel that sustained them was the long-simmering anger about inflation, official corruption, inequality and the lack of jobs. State media workers were among those marching through the square. This time, the protests evolved into the pro-democracy movement for which they are now remembered, before they were brutally crushed by the military on 4 June 1989.
Jiang was not a liberal. He was promoted to general secretary immediately after the Tiananmen crackdown after his predecessor Zhao Ziyang was dismissed for failing to take a sufficiently hard line against the protesters. The following year, Jiang dismissed the massacre during an interview with the American journalist Barbara Walters as “much ado about nothing”. Yet he presided over a different China from the one now led by Xi. Under Jiang, the country began opening up and its economy began taking off. China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001 during his final years in power (Jiang was general secretary from 1989-2002 and president from 1993-2003). The future looked bright.
By the time Xi became the Chinese Communist Party’s leader in 2012 and embarked on a renewed crackdown on civil society as part of his increasingly repressive rule, Jiang had acquired a new fanbase among young Chinese citizens as a symbol of that earlier era. On his 90th birthday in 2016, memes and tributes flooded Chinese social media, where he had acquired the affectionate nickname “toad” for the supposed physical resemblance he bore and his habit of wearing distinctively large glasses. Following his death, fans describing themselves as “toad worshippers” have posted tributes online. Yet in remembering Jiang, some have reportedly already taken the opportunity to implicitly criticise Xi, posting links to songs on social media platforms, such as “Shame it Wasn’t You” and “Wrong Man”.
It is possible that the Chinese government will exploit the news of Jiang’s death to flood the internet with its preferred tributes in an attempt to bury coverage of the extraordinary anti-lockdown protests that took place in multiple cities in recent days. But Xi knows his history and he understands how quickly acts of remembrance can evolve into demands for political change.