Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin dies at age 96, the police tamp down on anti-censorship protests, and COVID-19 outbreaks bite into China’s economy.
If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.
How Will China Mourn Jiang Zemin?
Jiang Zemin, China’s leader from 1989 to 2002, died just after noon in Shanghai on Wednesday, according to the official press release. Jiang led the country through a period of remarkable growth and change, even as he continued the post-Tiananmen Square massacre restrictions on freedom of speech and thought; Foreign Policy’s full obituary takes a deeper look at his career.
It’s possible that Jiang died hours or even days before the time given. In China, the government has often delayed death announcements for significant leaders, such as Deng Xiaoping, while finalizing the right language and notifying other leaders. Rumors of Jiang’s death were a constant in Chinese politics in the last two decades.
Jiang’s death poses a political threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) he led as well as to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who holds the same positions that Jiang once did but has accumulated even more personal power. To start, periods of mourning can trigger protests in China. Jiang’s death also comes just days after a wave of unprecedented demonstrations against both China’s zero-COVID policy and censorship—offering a potential outlet for public anger.
In 1976, the death of then-widely venerated premier Zhou Enlai prompted a mass gathering in Tiananmen Square that turned into a protest against the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four Maoist political faction. When Hu Yaobang, a liberal leader forced to resign in 1987 by conservative hard-liners, died in 1989, mass protests in Beijing and many other cities followed—resulting in the deadly June 4 crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
Jiang was not nearly as popular as those leaders, although a largely ironic cult around him had grown online, affectionately referring to the former leader as “Uncle Toad.” During Xi’s leadership, worship of Jiang has taken on a subversive edge, highlighting the relative cultural freedom of the past. Jiang’s loose, quirky manner—given to singing Western songs and proclaiming his love of foreign movies—and sharp tongue are contrasted with Xi’s grayness.
The wave of online mourning after Jiang’s death has echoed these comparisons. As New York Times columnist Li Yuan smartly put it, it’s like Americans mourning former U.S. President George H.W. Bush—not so much about the man himself but as a contrast with the current leader.
Jiang’s death also offers a politically legitimate reason to gather in public. It’s hard for the police to clear a crowd that comes together for a sanctioned form of mourning, even if the purpose of the gathering shifts. (That said, COVID-19 restrictions offer a convenient excuse.) Official public mourning, with websites grayed out and flags at half-mast, offers a potent contrast with the lack of official acknowledgement for the victims of the apartment fire in Urumqi last week—one that might spur further anger.
A more subtle danger lurks inside the CCP. Jiang’s death comes at a time of weakened credibility for Xi between the recent protests, economic slowdown, and his doubling down on the country’s zero-COVID policy. But plotting against the leader is a risky proposition, especially under heavy surveillance. In 1976, the party leaders and generals plotting to topple the Gang of Four met at their homes. Jiang’s death may provide an excuse for people to talk without arousing suspicion.
Despite zero-COVID measures, the party’s entire Central Committee—205 people—will be assembled for the funeral, plus alternate members and former leaders. It’s possible that nothing comes of it. After all, Xi can work out the political calculus here himself, and he heads the funeral committee. COVID-19 may present an excuse for limiting face-to-face contact between the attendees ahead of the funeral. But if there is a serious movement against Xi from within the party, this is where it could begin.
In this context, the Xinhua News Agency’s release on Jiang’s death contained one particularly interesting section, praising the former leader’s decision to hand over power. It noted that he “offered full support” to his successor, Hu Jintao, and in 2004 offered to retire from his powerful Central Military Commission posts—“fully displaying his great foresight for the development of the cause of the Party and the state.” In reality, Jiang still exerted some power during Hu’s rule, especially in the early years.
It’s possible that this language is a holdover from the days when peaceful leadership succession was held up as a sign of CCP strength before Xi dismantled the system in 2018. But praise for something that Xi has so blatantly not done could also telegraph an unexpected weakness of his leadership—one that any remaining would-be opponents could exploit.
Protests muted, for now. The wave of protests that swept China last weekend has largely been squashed in the big cities, thanks to an extensive police presence and follow-up harassment and arrests. In visible hotspots like central Shanghai, police have demanded people’s mobile phones, using a technique first pioneered in Xinjiang to search for forbidden content, virtual private networks, or apps connected to the outside world. These efforts have quieted anti-censorship and anti-CCP demonstrations, but people are still gathering elsewhere against zero-COVID measures.
As I predicted, the authorities have blamed foreign forces for the protests, which were triggered by the Urumqi fire. The Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission issued standard rhetoric about “infiltration and sabotage efforts by hostile forces” without explicitly naming the protests while a conspiracy theory that the United States has a $500 million budget to aid protesters is spreading on social media.
Zero-COVID hangs in the balance. As COVID-19 outbreaks spread across China, further restrictions loom in many places. Shanghai may return to a full lockdown, with the government urging people to stockpile 60 days’ worth of goods—very difficult in Chinese apartments with limited storage. But authorities must strike a tricky balance between COVID-19 measures and attempting to mollify angry crowds. So far, this appears to be handled on a city-by-city basis: Guangzhou and Chongqing have both eased policies in response to protests.
However, there have been hints of a shift in national policy. Officials are still defending the zero-COVID policy, but a Zhejiang government article that mentioned more flexible measures drew attention online, and other agencies have spoken of changing policy. A Beijing News article that downplayed the risks of COVID-19 may indicate a change in propaganda strategy, potentially preparing the public to accept higher case numbers. There seems to be an effort to ease mass testing, one of the most burdensome measures.
Any real change is still very unlikely until after the winter; China’s hospital system is simply not prepared for the burden of larger outbreaks. Because so many health care workers and government personnel have been pulled into enforcing the zero-COVID policy, they haven’t been able to prepare for a potential end to the policy.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• Russia’s Great Reverse Migration by Evan Pheiffer
• Russia Is Running Low on Ammo by Jack Detsch
• What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually. by Raphael S. Cohen and Gian Gentile
The cost of surveillance. As police target protesters in Shanghai, Beijing, and other big cities, the sweeping nature of Chinese surveillance is again capturing attention. Although it’s true that camera networks are increasingly extensive, as is the use of big data, they still involve considerable costs. As Xinjiang’s experience shows, it’s not enough for the state to rely on surveillance alone; it also needs manpower to enforce it. Camera and phone surveillance is connected to networks of offline enforcers and informants—long part of CCP practice.
Surveillance networks are also densest in China’s major cities. People at the relatively small anti-regime protests in central Beijing and Shanghai are much easier to track and tag than large crowds in other urban areas, especially outside city centers.
Economy contracts as COVID-19 bites. China’s manufacturing index and other key economic indicators contracted in November, as businesses took another hit from zero-COVID measures. Protests and worker flight at key factories—such as Foxconn, a major manufacturer for Apple—have seriously affected production. China’s retail sector is also experiencing frequent and arbitrary closures.
As COVID-19 spreads, migrant workers will likely return to their home villages—and they may stay there until after the Spring Festival in January. That means losing out on large amounts of pay, which is sometimes withheld for months and only paid out just before the holiday. Last year, the authorities attempted to limit the number of people going home with travel restrictions; that may prompt workers to get out while they can now.
Jack Ma in Japan. Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma, once widely respected in China, has reportedly spent the last six months in Tokyo, as the government’s crackdown on technology companies continues. Ma fell out of the limelight in 2020, when authorities targeted him for a speech criticizing regulators. Alipay, his giant online finance platform, was singled out amid a general assault on a once-vibrant tech sector.
Ma has been spotted abroad before, but this kind of sustained absence from China may signal that he is willing to leave altogether. Unless a quiet bargain has already been struck, his departure would likely result in the CCP stripping part of his wealth away.