China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, paid tribute to the late former president, Jiang Zemin, on Tuesday in a show of unity among the ruling elite, just over a week after nationwide protests challenged Beijing’s authority.
Despite its atheism, the ruling Chinese Communist Party broadcasts its deceased leaders in almost religious ceremony, and its ceremony to commemorate Mr. Jiang, who died on Wednesday at the age of 96, was no exception. Mr Xi gave a 51-minute eulogy to Mr Jiang that was full of praise while avoiding hints of personal and political differences between the two leaders.
“We love and appreciate Comrade Jiang Zemin and cherish the memory of Comrade Jiang Zemin as he has devoted his heart and soul and energy to the Chinese people throughout his life,” said Mr. Xi at a memorial ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
The event was attended by thousands of officials, soldiers and dignitaries, who sat in the audience wearing masks. Even as the party tried to show solidarity within its ranks, the masks were a visual reminder of the coronavirus pandemic controls that sparked protests across China.
Demonstrations against China’s exceptionally strict “zero Covid” policy of lockdowns erupted across the country in late November, escalating at times into calls for Mr Xi and the party to resign. The Chinese government has begun easing some of the pandemic measures that have fueled public anger, even as coronavirus infections continue to rise. Beijing said on Tuesday residents would no longer have to show negative Covid test results to enter supermarkets, shopping malls, the city’s main airport and other public places.
The protests were the most widespread and brutal in China since 1989, and particularly an insult to Mr Xi, who has tightened the party’s grip on society and has gone to great lengths to quell dissent in his first decade in power.
In this delicate time, the funeral events for Mr. Jiang also gave Mr. Xi a chance to put pressure on the leaders and the country to rally behind him, Chinese political analysts said.
Many of the rituals to mark the deaths of former Chinese leaders are prescribed in rules developed over decades to mark the deaths of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and other party titans.
But the tributes for Mr. Jiang were in some ways similar to those for Deng, one of the founders of communist China and a much more important figure in Chinese history, said Deng Yuwen, a former editor of a Communist Party newspaper who now lives in the United States. The eulogy of Mr. Xi on Tuesday was about as long as Mr. Jiang spoke out for Deng Xiaoping when he died in 1997.
Understand the protests in China
“With Jiang’s passing, it was a given that he would receive high honors, but I think the amount of it came as a surprise to many people,” said Mr. Deng in a telephone interview. “In a way, this also indicates that outsiders who take to the streets will not have a chance to split the party leadership.”
The mourning for Mr. Jiang also implicitly marked the end of an era in Chinese politics in which he and other party elders, even after retirement, remained powerful players in the backroom.
After Mr. Jiang abdicated his last important post as military chairman of the party in 2004, his protégés continued his influence in politics. They were sometimes referred to as the “Shanghai Gang” after Mr. Jiang. They stopped his successor Hu Jintao and helped Mr. Xi to emerge as Mr. Hu, say many experts and insiders.
But the influence of Mr. Jiang declined over the past ten years and after Mr. Hu retired in 2012, he also retained little control. At a Party Congress in October, Mr. Xi’s remaining protégés of Mr. Hu, including Premier Li Keqiang, sidelined and installed a new top leadership that completely dominated his own loyalists.
“Jiang Zemin’s passing means that this old man politics is completely over,” said Mr. Deng. “It was over before, but his passing is an even more powerful symbol of that.”
The carefully planned rituals began as soon as the state media announced Mr. Jiang announced last week. Xinhua, the main official news agency, paid warm tribute to Mr. Jiang. Chinese news websites and major newspapers changed their color to sad black and white. In Shanghai, where Mr. Jiang died, a motorcade escorted his body to an airport, where it was flown to Beijing.
Party newspapers have since paid tributes to Mr. Jiang published. They have emphasized his role in strengthening the party after the army crushed pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. They praise Mr. Jiang for continuing China’s market-driven reforms and accelerating the modernization of the military.
Mourning climaxed Monday with a funeral attended by leaders and family of Mr. Jiang. Chinese state television showed Mr. Xi and other officials — retired and current — in a slow, reverent circle around Mr. Jiang walked, expressed condolences to Mr. Jiang, Wang Yeping, and bowed to his body three times.
Mr. Hu, the retired leader, also walked around the coffin, accompanied by an aide who supported him. At the Party Congress in October, Mr. Hu was abruptly escorted off stage – an exit that sparked wild speculation that Mr. Xi would purge the former leader in a dramatic display of his power. (Chinese state media later reported that Mr. Hu was unwell.)
Later on Monday, soldiers and carefully controlled crowds in black lined the boulevard on which the hearse carrying the body of Mr. Jiang drove to the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery in western Beijing.
For many Chinese, the grief over the death of Mr. Jiang sincerely.
Mr. Jiang was a tough leader at times, especially when he cracked down in 1999 on the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement the party saw as a threat to its power. But many in China, especially entrepreneurs and liberal intellectuals, remember him more because he pushed ahead with market changes, secured China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, and tolerated a more open debate about political change than is now possible.
“In his appreciation for reform and openness, his determination to keep up with the tides of the times, his sophisticated political skills and tactics, and his respect for the trend towards greater social diversity – and the way he has combined all these factors – he surpassed his predecessors,” said Xiao Gongqin, a historian in Shanghai who recalled meeting Mr. Jiang in 1987.
Mr. Xi, in his eulogy, tried to praise Mr. Jiang’s achievements without it undermining his own record.
Party leaders recall that in 1989, student protesters came to mourn the sudden death of Hu Yaobang, a deposed general secretary of the party, whom the protesters said had been unfairly treated by Deng Xiaoping and other elders.
Mr. Xi seemed determined not to allow any suspicion that he had disrespected Mr. Jiang, but he also presented Mr. Jiang as a precursor to many of Mr. Xi’s own policies to strengthen China against external and domestic threats.
In the early 1990s, “world socialism experienced serious setbacks, and some Western countries imposed so-called ‘sanctions’ on China,” said Mr. Xi. Mr. Jiang, he continued, had managed to stabilize the economy while strengthening ideological discipline and “resolutely defending the independence, dignity, security and stability of our country”.
Mr Xi also praised Mr Jiang for stepping down from his last major position in 2004 after 15 years as central leader, saying the move demonstrated the late president’s “wise foresight”.
But Mr. Xi, 69, seems unlikely to follow Mr. Jiang’s lead. After ten years in power, he has begun a third five-year term as party leader and is unlikely to have a successor in the wings, implying he could stay in office for at least another ten years.
Joy Dong reporting contributed.