On Thursday, a day after Jiang Zemin’s death, Chinese newspapers turned their front pages black and Chinese flags were lowered to half-staff on government buildings and Chinese embassies to mark the death of China’s former leader, whose funeral is scheduled for Tuesday.
On China’s heavily censored social media, users posted mostly positive comments focused on Jiang’s legacy since his death Wednesday.
These remarks contrasted with posts from experts and Twitter users located outside China who compared the relatively more liberal times he oversaw with the increasingly authoritarian environment under the current leader Xi Jinping.
VOA Mandarin’s tweet asking for comments on Jiang’s legacy received more than 19,300 total comments, likes and shares.
Some Chinese netizens who responded mentioned the relatively prosperous culture in mainland China during Jiang’s era.
One comment said, “Many classic and meaningful movies and TV series appeared during his administration. It was also during his era that China introduced Hollywood blockbusters. I still remember that when Titanic was released in China, he publicly expressed his love for this movie. At that time, I said to my friend, Jiang is advertising for the movie.”
Compared to Xi, who once wanted to eliminate term limits, netizens mentioned that Jiang served two terms as the Communist Party’s general secretary and the country’s president.
Others posted outside the Mandarin Service.
James Zimmerman, a Beijing-based lawyer and former chairman of the business group, AmCham China, said in a tweet that “Jiang Zemin was a complicated guy with a mixed legacy. But he encouraged many Mainland Chinese people to embrace the world — travel it, learn from it, respect it. Xi Jinping is no Jiang Zemin.”
NPR’s London correspondent Frank Langfitt recalled his brief interaction with Jiang, who had summoned reporters to in the Great Hall of the People in 1997. Reporters’ questions were not reviewed in advance during what Langfitt described as an “unprecedented” press conference, and Jiang did not use an interpreter when answering Langfett’s questions.
“Such a press conference and exchange are unthinkable under the current leader, Xi Jinping. And a reminder that China wasn’t always the way it is now,” Langfitt said in a tweet.
Sarah Cook, research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House, said on Twitter, “It was another era but let’s not forget that Jiang laid the foundation for much censorship and brutality we see under Xi, building the GFW (Great Fire Wall) and of course, launching the violent suppression of people who practice Falun Gong.”
The Great Fire Wall is what Chinese people call China’s online censorship. Falun Gong is a spiritual movement that has been banned in China.
Yaqiu Wang, senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch, tweeted, “Jiang was better, but he was still an authoritarian ruler who got the top position because he successfully suppressed the Tiananmen Protests. I hope people will allow themselves to imagine a better China without resorting to the less bad dictators in the past.”
The government used deadly force in 1989 to suppress protestors in Tiananmen Square who were demanding greater political freedom.
In an interview with VOA Mandarin, David Lampton, a China expert at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who had met Jiang many times, thinks Jiang had a sense of both history and the future that the current leadership does not.
“Therefore, you saw Jiang Zemin, basically, mistakes aside, pushing in a direction with history,” he said. “And it’d be my judgment, on the big strategic issues, that the current leadership in China is not pushing in the direction of history.”