The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China bids farewell to ex-leader Jiang and his era of relative openness

In video image from China's CCTV, honor guard members stand near a giant portrait of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin during a formal memorial held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Tuesday. (AP)

Top Chinese Communist Party officials gathered in Beijing on Tuesday for a memorial service to honor former president Jiang Zemin, in a display of unity and strength at a time when Chinese leader Xi Jinping faces widespread frustration over his strict coronavirus restrictions and iron-fisted rule.

On Monday, a funeral ceremony for Jiang, who led China through a period of breakneck economic development from 1989 to 2002, was held at a military hospital in Beijing before he was cremated at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery, the site in western Beijing where many senior leaders are buried.

The Tuesday morning ceremony at the towering Great Hall of the People in central Beijing concludes a week of national mourning. The country’s stock exchanges were suspended for three minutes while air raid sirens rang out and people honked car horns.

Chinese President Xi Jinping paid tribute to former leader Jiang Zemin on Dec. 6 for ensuring the Communist Party's survival from “political storms.” (Video: Reuters)

In China, former president Jiang’s death comes at an unsettled time

News of Jiang’s death Nov. 30, from leukemia and multiple organ failure at age 96, came as Chinese security forces were cracking down on frustrated and mostly young urban residents who took to the streets in more than a dozen cities to protest primarily against “zero covid” restrictions, but also Xi’s repressive politics.

Chinese authorities have barely acknowledged the largest display of public discontent since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. But a gradual easing of coronavirus testing and quarantine requirements has accelerated in recent days.

In a televised eulogy, Xi said that Jiang had been an inseparable part of the progress China made during his tenure, calling him a great Marxist, revolutionary and statesman. He also made a rare tacit mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests when he noted that Jiang made “correct strategic decisions” to ensure stability in Shanghai during what the party calls a period of “serious political turmoil.”

Chinese authorities have carefully managed mourning over the past six days. Websites turned gray and well-wishers gathered in an unusually orderly single-file line in Shanghai and, separately, arrived one by one to leave flowers by the door of Jiang’s ancestral home in Yangzhou city. The police presence on the streets remains elevated to guard against vigils that might morph into demonstrations.

Despite security concerns, Xi wanted to ensure Jiang received the highest honors in part to repay the former leader for support when Xi was chosen to be the new party leader in 2012, said Victor Shih, an expert on elite Chinese politics at the University of California at San Diego.

Xi may, however, be wary of allowing too much nostalgia for the Jiang era: the country hit its highest pace of growth, there was a relatively open cultural, if not political, atmosphere, and the relationship with the United States was mostly improving.

“This is the last gasp of the China of the 1990s when a lot of positive things happened,” Shih said. “That era is really finally gone.”

In 1997, the death of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader often considered pivotal in leading the country out of Mao-era isolation, sparked a countrywide outpouring of grief that lasted for days. It ended with Jiang delivering an emotional eulogy, during which his voice repeatedly broke. He at one point took a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his nose and eyes.

This week’s commemoration of Jiang has been more restrained. Xi ended his remarks speaking slowly and with only a hint of emotion as he bid a final farewell to Jiang and said that the former leader’s achievements would be “engraved in the hearts of all people down through the generations.”

Historically, the death of former senior leaders has often been an unsettling time in Chinese politics, when internal divisions within the party elite intensify and public grievances with the current leadership are aired. The passing of Premier Zhou Enlai in 1976 and General Secretary Hu Yaobang in 1989 both fueled student-led protests and calls for deeper reform.

But since the evening of June 3 and morning of June 4, 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army used tanks and bullets to clear demonstrators from Tiananmen Square and the surrounding Beijing streets, the party has been determined to avoid similar crises.

Jiang, who was chosen by Deng and hard-liners as a compromise candidate during the turmoil of 1989, led a campaign of patriotic education teaching schoolchildren of all ages to love the party, as well as pursuing a continued crackdown on Tiananmen leaders.

At the same time, he led an effort to rebuild China’s image globally after the massacre and pushed forward with economic changes and the gradual opening of Chinese markets to the world, culminating in its accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001.

A more pragmatic Xi Jinping launches a global charm offensive for China

Throughout the process of internationalization, however, Jiang continued to openly reject Western-style multiparty democracy and warn of “hostile forces” trying to undermine the party’s rule — a line that has been used frequently under Xi, including during the recent surge of discontent.

Despite Jiang’s harder edge, his death created a degree of nostalgia for a leader who could be spontaneous and displayed a keen interest in the Western world. He was known to be able to recite the Gettysburg Address in English from memory and once publicly endorsed “Titanic,” helping the movie become a hit in China.

As the country’s most powerful leader in decades, Xi has intensified a campaign of cultural and political self-confidence which disparages the idea that China still has lessons to learn from the Western world. He has expanded national security, promoted ideas of “common prosperity” and sought to rein in excessive wealth as part of a “new era” of Chinese development.

Yet the funeral is also a moment for Xi to present a united face to the country and the world.

Jiang’s eldest son, Jiang Mianheng, a physicist and head of ShanghaiTech University, led the proceedings Monday, carrying a portrait of his father and receiving an embrace from Xi.

China’s former president Jiang Zemin, who ruled after Tiananmen, dies at 96

Current and former senior leaders, including Hu Jintao, who led the country between Jiang and Xi, paid their final respects to Jiang before he was cremated.

Hu’s sudden departure midway through the final day of the 20th National Party Congress in October drew widespread speculation about both his health and his relationship with Xi, who had just secured a norm-defying third term as leader and cleared the top leadership of Hu proteges in favor of his own lieutenants.

In official footage of the ceremony Monday, Hu was shown walking without help past funeral wreaths, albeit attended at all times by an aide.

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