(Bloomberg) -- The death of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin poses yet another challenge for Xi Jinping, providing a potential rallying point for people disillusioned by stringent Covid Zero measures and a flagging economy.
Jiang’s death at the age of 96, which was announced by state media Wednesday, comes days after people took to the streets to challenge virus curbs in China’s most widespread protests in decades. While the demonstrations have since subsided, efforts to mourn the fallen leader who took steps to open the Asian nation to the world could provide a fresh impetus for gatherings that turn into a platform to criticize Xi.
“After the death of such a big figure in Chinese politics, some people may write articles, people may have gatherings, and this would be totally legal and allowed,” said Chen Gang, an assistant director and senior research fellow at National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute. “If such activities continue, people can make the contrast between the previous leader and the current situation. That may have a kind of backlash effect upon the current administration.”
A similar episode in April 1989 -- the death of ousted Communist Party official Hu Yaobang -- prompted an outpouring of public grief that morphed into extended pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square and loosely related demonstrations around the country. By June, China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had decided to send the military into the square to quash the movement.
Deng anointed Jiang as leader in the immediate aftermath of the crackdown, as the wider world suspended ties with Beijing as punishment for the incident. Despite his association with the turmoil, Jiang went on to lead China’s return to the world stage, overseeing a period of rapid development and relative openness.
Nostalgia for that time could strike a chord with those dissatisfied with Xi’s more inward-looking era of slower growth and greater focus on security. Protesters staged dozens of gatherings across China last weekend, with some openly calling for Xi to step down, a rare display of defiance against single-party rule.
“The Communist Party is now facing a crisis because there’s so much negative news and morale is low,” said Alfred Wu, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “Jiang Zemin now appears very beloved by many people compared to the current regime.”
Jiang also enjoyed a degree of popularity among people, in part because his charisma translated well even in the digital era, garnering fans among China’s younger generation in recent years. Memes of so-called toad worship, in which internet users used photos of the amphibian to celebrate Jiang’s appearance, often reinforced longing for the period he oversaw.
Still, support for Jiang doesn’t compare with the grief people felt about Hu’s death, said Wang Dan, former student leader of the Tiananmen Democracy Movement and founder of Dialogue China think tank.
“Today’s younger generation, I don’t think they really love Jiang Zemin, because they know nothing about him,” Wang told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Thursday. “It’s not enough to push them to the street.”
China has signaled a willingness to clamp down on any attempt to repeat last weekend’s protests. The country’s top law enforcement body vowed Monday not to tolerate “illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order.” Those arriving at rumored protests sites this week have found large groups of police waiting for them.
Neil Thomas, a China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk advisory and consulting firm said the party will go into “overdrive” to control the message of public mourning for Jiang and to secure the streets during any official commemorations. “Beijing is not unprepared for Jiang’s death,” he said.
China is expected to hold a state memorial meeting for Jiang in the coming week. It wasn’t immediately clear if there will be a public element for the official mourning.
When Deng died in 1997, tens of thousands of Chinese people gathered along the capital city’s main Chang’an Avenue to bid farewell on the day he was cremated, with some holding banners and photos.
Many Chinese social media users on Thursday paid tributes to Jiang, often tinged with nostalgia. Online photos show residents laying flowers to commemorate Jiang at his former residence in Yangzhou, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, at a food factory he worked in Shanghai, as well as on the campus of his alma mater, Shanghai Jiaotong University.
A Weibo post with a video showing flowers placed in front of Jiang’s old house in Yangzhou had almost 300,000 likes.
Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, said China’s law-enforcement agencies will help avoid a repeat of past events.
“In many respects, the security apparatus we have in China today is a product of the disastrous way that 1989 was handled,” he said. “But still that doesn’t mean that it won’t be a huge cost if the protests continue or if they’re accentuated by Jiang Zemin’s death.”
--With assistance from Bruce Einhorn, Zibang Xiao and Isabel Reynolds.
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