(Bloomberg) — President Xi Jinping praised Jiang Zemin as a leader who led China’s boom despite Western pressure and domestic turmoil after the Tiananmen crackdown, using his predecessor’s memorial service to bolster his own assertive agenda.
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Xi credited Jiang, who took power right after Chinese troops crushed pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, with carrying out the Communist Party’s “correct decision” to resolve what he described only as a “severe political disturbance.” While Xi’s remarks Tuesday reiterated the party’s view on the incident, it also served as warning in light of protests that have sprung up in recent weeks to challenge Xi’s Covid Zero policies.
“Some Western countries imposed so-called sanctions against China, posing unprecedented difficulties and pressure for the development of China’s socialism,” Xi recounted for party leaders assembled in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, draped with black instead of the usual red.
“At this critical historical juncture that determined the future and destiny of the party and state, comrade Jiang relied on the central collective leadership of the CPC and firmly relied on the full party, entire military, and the Chinese people of all ethnic groups to unswervingly take economic development as the central task,” Xi said, wearing a black suit with a white flower on his lapel.
The memorial for Jiang comes at challenging time for Xi, with his government facing calls at home and from abroad to loosen virus restrictions that have stifled daily life and hurt the economy. The protests against the policies were the most widespread China has seen since 1989, and during at least one event in Shanghai last month demonstrators called for Xi and the party to step down.
Jiang, who led the country from 1989 to 2002, oversaw China’s global reemergence during the 1990s and paved the way for its pivotal entry into the World Trade Organization. While he sought to convey openness and accessibility and played down China’s gathering military might, Xi has led the country toward a more confident, assertive stance.
Xi’s speech Tuesday highlighted echoes of his own agenda in Jiang’s legacy, from challenging “separatist” forces to “fighting corruption.” He also credited Jiang with pushing for a “multipolar world,” echoing Xi’s view of the US as a declining hegemon that must let China play a bigger role.
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“Dare to fight and dare to win is the great spiritual power for the CPC and China,” Xi said, citing Jiang as saying: “The confrontations and fights — domestic and abroad — between the different social systems and ideologies, is always testing party members. We must be heroic to overcome all the enemies. Men cannot bend our noble heads.”
The speech displayed “Xi’s signature approach to domestic and international affairs,” said Alfred Wu, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “His main theme is going against the West.”
The ceremony for Jiang, who’s death in Shanghai at the age of 96 was announced by state media on Nov. 30, started with a moment of silence and marked by sirens in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. In attendance were hundreds of top party leaders, clad in black and wearing surgical masks due to continued virus outbreaks. The only other surviving former Chinese president, Hu Jintao, didn’t appear to be in attendance.
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There had been concerns that Jiang’s death could provide a rallying point for protesters, though worries have faded some given moves by authorities in several major cities to ease testing requirements and the appearance that Xi is shifting away from Covid Zero.
Students at a university in Wuhan demonstrated on Sunday over what they said were confusing travel rules and access to food. Millions of people in that central city were locked down in early 2020 for more than two months, setting a precedent that has been repeated across the nation many times since, most notably in Shanghai earlier this year.
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The service was a heavily scripted affair, like most party events. The people that lined the streets of Shanghai and Beijing recently to watch his hearse pass by were apparently organized by the government, and photos that circulated online seemed to show people being bused to specific locations.
Jiang’s death has prompted a wave of nostalgia on Chinese social media, with internet users remembering him as colorful and erudite. One clip that was shared widely showed him playing conductor as senior leaders sang at a gala for China’s writers and artists in late 2001.
“Jiang Zemin, whom I knew personally, was a great man, a man of great achievements, a man of great humor and great talents and great accomplishments,” Victor Gao, a professor at Soochow University and vice president of think tank Center for China and Globalization told Bloomberg Television on Tuesday. “But among all the other things, I think Jiang Zemin was a man of great reform and opening to the outside world.”
Xi used his speech to press China to follow what he described as the example of the late leader.
“On the new journey ahead, we must keep the fighting spirit for every single day as well as our bravery and actively greet the forces of history, enhancing the determination, backbone and confidence of the whole party, the whole country, and all ethnic groups,” Xi said. “We are not going to believe in heresies and won’t succumb to pressure. We are going to deal with all the difficulties and challenges on the way ahead.”
–With assistance from Jill Disis and Philip J. Heijmans.
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