Jiang Zemin (1926 – 2022)

Jiang Zemin, a president and a meme, died this week, aged 96.

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On “60 Minutes” in 2000, he was asked whether he was running China as a ‘developmental dictatorship’. Jiang Zemin was defiant. “Of course not,” he answered, capping an interview where he quoted from the Gettysburg address.

He was colorful, even eccentric, compared to grey apparatchiks who made up the Chinese Communist Party. A showman (playing public games of ping pong, showing off his Hawaiian guitar skills, crooning the Chinese community of L.A. with a selection from “Beijing Opera”), a boor (combing his hair in front of the Spanish king [above], publicly berating Hong Kong journalists with his thickly-accented English, applauding enthusiastically at his own portrait during a Communist Party parade), a charmer. He gave bear hug to a stunned President Yeltsin at a press conference in Beijing as their countries settled their border issues. He sang a karaoke version of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” at the Asia-Pacific summit in 1996 with Fidel Ramos of the Philippines [below], and often broke out into “O Sole Mio” at banquets (once with Pavarotti). He asked Condoleezza Rice to dance with him, and at another press conference, this time with Bill Clinton, there was much debate and light-hearted banter – a turn of events which would be quite unimaginable nowadays.

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He had to be a charmer, as he travelled far and wide to build support for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. That same visit to America had included a stop at Harvard where he joked that even at his age (71), his hearing is still sharp enough to hear the demonstrators outside, and that he would simply have to speak louder. He also appeared to have admitted a certain responsibility for the Tiananmen massacre:  “It goes without saying that, naturally, we may have shortcomings and even make some mistakes in our work.”

Those were the days. No Chinese leader before or since had been or would ever be that candid, that ingratiating again. But Jiang had made a career out of being agreeable: first as one of the “flower-vases” – a term for low-level technocrats who were all decoration, no action; then as an unassuming and peripheral Politburo member; and finally as a compromise candidate between the warring hardliners and reformists in the wake of Tiananmen, and an agreeable front man for the grey eminence of Deng Xiaoping. 

His rule domestically was a time of quiescence bliss – but not for the Tibetans or Falun Gong supporters that he persecuted, nor for state-owned employees who lost their jobs as China privatized – but Jiang encapsulated China’s peaceful rise in many ways. He stood for a time where it seemed possible that China could still be a normal pluralistic society. His 1997 Politburo standing committee was the first time in Chinese history that the state had not had a soldier at the core of its power (perhaps first time since the days of Dowager Empress Cixi) and his retirement, albeit protracted, was the only time in the Chinese Communist Party’s history that a peaceful handover of power took place.

After his retirement, Jiang’s images have become gifs and emojis on Chinese social media. It was with a mixture of affection and hilarity that he was often portrayed him as a toad, alluding to his wide mouth, portly physique, square spectacles, and often high-waisted trousers. The unlikely new fans who came of age and prosperity during Jiang’s presidency called themselves “toad-worshippers”.

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Most memorable images of Jiang were of his public swims: at Waikiki Beach in Hawaii with black googles and a pinkish-purple swimhat, and floating languidly on the Dead Sea during a state visit to Israel – first by a Chinese president.  Rumors about his health had persisted throughout his presidency – at Hong Kong handover in 1997, Jiang looked unhealthy leading to rumors that he had suffered a heart attack. These swims were his attempts to prove otherwise, but they were unfavourably compared with Mao’s Great Swim across the Yangzi. No Chinese leader since had conducted such performative acts of athleticism, even though the elite still trundle down annually for a leadership conference at Beidaihe, a beach resort on the Bohai Sea where Mao loved to swim. (Despite Chairman Xi’s assertion to the Washington Post that, “I like sports, and swimming is my favorite,” there’s no photo of his swimming).  

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Hu Jintao is Removed

Kremlinology, they used to call it. Analysis of an opaque obscurantist state, using indirect clues: the removal of portraits, the rearranging of chairs, the standing positions and precedence on the parade podium on the Red Square. Even the choice of capitalization (“First Secretary”) and syntax in paper newspapers. In one of its most famous examples, Stalin looks increasingly lonely, as his comrades were airbrushed out of photographs — and past is entirely rewritten by an ahistorical regime.

This week, that absurdist spectacle was once again back to the forefront at 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. As the meeting apotheoses Xi Jingping and granted him an unprecedented third term as leader of China, his predecessor was escorted out of the meeting room, seemingly forcibly.

The fact that Hu Jintao, President of China from 2003 to 2013 and Mr. Xi’s predecessor, was taken away as foreign correspondents were ushered in and that there was a lack of one uncut video of the event fueled much speculation. Mr. Hu did appear, yet at several times during the video, he displayed feistiness and reluctance to depart — rendering Communist Party’s official line that he was taken ill doubtful.

We have two video clips of the moment. Firstly, the one from Channel News Asia:

The clip begins with Li Zhanshu, the Speaker of the National People’s Congress (and the third highest ranking member of the Politburo), taking away a piece of white paper from Mr. Hu. Mr. Li chats with the former president, puts the paper under the red folder and hands the folder back to Mr. Hu. Only seconds later (17 sec mark in video), Mr. Li takes away the folder from Mr. Hu, almost in panic. In the background, an usher is summoned to Xi.

There seems to be a lengthy conversation between Mr. Hu and Mr. Li. Finally at 56 secs mark, the usher returns, and Mr. Xi gives the usher a long set of instructions, pointing to (possibly) an agenda in front of him. Mr. Hu listens in on the conversation, his expression neutral yet concerned. Then then usher tries to show Mr. Hu something on his white piece of paper, but is prevented by Mr. Li, who once again hides it under the red folder.

Throughout this, Mr. Hu doesn’t not appear to look frail or ill.

There’s a cut to CNA’s video at this mark, so let’s move to AFP video. Please note that before the cut, there’s Mr. Hu’s signature glasses on the table, but as AFP video begins, the usher has already picked them up already. So we don’t know how long the missing footage is.

AFP video begins with usher holding Mr. Hu’s arm and the former president resisting, once again, not looking ill. The usher tries lifting him up, and 9 secs mark, Mr. Hu tries to reach for Xi’s red folder. This action hints that there might be different things printed on two presidents’ white pieces of paper, and Mr. Hu, upon realizing that, is trying to bring attention to it. Xi resists, the usher strongarms Mr. Hu, and Mr. Li hands over Mr. Hu’s red folder to the usher.

In the background approaches, Kong Shaoxun, a deputy director considered to be close to Chairman Xi.

Now, Mr. Hu is starting to look a bit discombobulated.

(From 23 secs onwards, AFP video overlaps with CNA (at 1:26 secs mark), so we can see from two angles).

At 33 secs mark, the usher almost forcibly takes Mr. Hu out of his chair. Mr. Hu nearly slips but turns to return to his seat. At 56 secs mark, Mr. Li tries to help the former president, but is dissuaded by Wang Huning on his left, the fourth highest ranking member of the Politburo, who’s often known as China’s ‘Grey Eminence’. Mr. Hu makes another attempt to take the folder and the white piece of paper back, but the usher isn’t showing it to him. Mr. Hu makes an indigant shrug of his hand, looking anything but ill.

On his way out, he exchanges brief words with Xi and patted Premier Li Keqiang, a protegee who belongs to his wing of the party, on the shoulder. As he was led away, other party grandees, including his former Premier, Wen Jiabao (white haired and sitting fifth to right of Chairman Xi) looked stonily ahead.

The whole sequence was simultaneously highly unusual given the meticulous stage management of such events and predictable – almost a ritualistic humiliation of a more conciliatory and outward-looking former regime, just for the sake of international audience. A signal of an end of an era. The footage was heavily censored internally in China.

So what was on the white piece of paper at the center of the fracas? Enlarged photos showed that they included a list of names – new members of the Central Committee. Although these names shouldn’t be a surprise to Mr. Hu (as appointments are circulated well in advance to party elders), it is possible that there were last minute changes or purges that the former president disagreed with. And there was much to be disagreeable. Mr. Xi was ‘re-elected,’ but neither Mr. Li (Li Keqiang and Li Zhanshu) were. Nor were there anyone from the Communist Youth League (tuanpai faction which was closely aligned with Mr. Hu) in the new PSC or Politburo. For the first time, it would consist of the Minister for State Security, China’s spychief, and would be all male – a first in 25 years.