China's leader Xi Jinping, under pressure for continuing his signature "zero-COVID policy" in the face of rare, widespread protests, is expected to speak at the Tuesday morning memorial service for former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Jiang Zemin.
Analysts say Jiang's death may deflect attention from the protests although some added that the passing of the relatively liberal Jiang invites comparison with the increasingly authoritarian rule of Xi, elected to a historic third term as the Communist Party's leader in October. The zero-COVID policy with lockdowns, daily testing and tough quarantine rules has become Xi's signature since its introduction early in 2020.
The death of 96-year-old Jiang, announced on November 30, comes at a sensitive time for China. Protests against the zero-COVID policy were sparked by a November 24 fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, that killed at least 10 people. Chants such as "stop the lockdowns!", "no freedom, no life" and even "Xi Jinping step down" have echoed through more than 20 cities and dozens of universities across China since then.
Xi's participation in the memorial, scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. in Beijing, is expected if the event in the Great Hall of the People adheres to the protocol uses for the memorial of former leader Deng Xiaoping in 1997, according to Bloomberg.
VOA Mandarin contacted the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., to find out if Xi would be speaking but did not receive an answer.
Protests involving multiple locations across the country and directed at the top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have been rare ever since the government quashed the student-led Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement in 1989. The government's crackdown killed a still-unknown number of protesters.
"Unlike Xi Jinping, Jiang Zemin was a more enlightened leader who allowed private entrepreneurs to join the party, and his policies facilitated China's rapid economic development," said Deng Yuwen, a former editor of Study Times, an official publication of the CCP.
China's economy more than tripled under Jiang, according to Bloomberg.
Worries that Jiang's death would encourage protesters have eased over the past few days as in several major cities have eased some zero-COVID restrictions.
"Many of Xi's political opponents hoped that Jiang's death would spark a massive revolt against the current regime in China … just like former party secretary Hu Yaobang's death sparked the Tiananmen Square movement," said Deng. "However … this expectation is likely to be disappointed."
When Hu died in April 1989 at the age of 74, students took to the streets of Beijing, calling for a more transparent system and an end to corruption, both causes identified with Hu.
Jiang's death sparked rumors online that CCP officials timed the announcement of his death to divert the public's attention from the zero-COVID protests. The online rumors implied Jiang had died before the official announcement.
The former host of the Hong Kong radio program "Headline News," Tsang Chi-ho, told VOA Mandarin that although the CCP could have picked the time of the official announcement as a distraction, it is also a risk because when people look back on Jiang Zemin, they are reminded of "the way he led China."
"The U.S.-China relationship during Jiang's time was relatively steady and amicable, especially from the Chinese point of view. The general economic environment at that time was relatively relaxed, and it was easier to make big money, so it is natural to compare the relatively open environment of Jiang Zemin era with the environment under Xi Jinping's strong control now," said Tsang.
Jiang ascended to the highest position of power after the Tiananmen Square protests. He halted political reforms, intensified the crackdown on dissidents but enacted economic policies that saw China's economy grow at a rapid pace as did corruption.
After Jiang's death, people posted condolences online. Many used memories of Jiang to satirize and criticize the censorship and government control that have grown since Xi assumed power in 2013.
An online comment by Deng Hong Qi posted under VOA Mandarin's Twitter account said: "Now I begin to miss the Jiang era, at least he's a very charismatic leader. Yes, corruption was widespread, but at least not that much of what people had to say was censored."
A post by Kevin Zh said: "From Jiang to Xi, there's no worst, only worse. I mean, the current leader really sucks. Although Mr. Jiang did not make amazing moves like reforming the political system, at least he stuck to market economy. His personal character is also very outstanding, flexible and wise. Most aspects of his governance were OK, judged by the standard of a Communist Party official. If Jiang was a leader in a Western country, he probably could have played it better. Look at the current one, been power for 10 years, it's a total mess and he's got enemies all over the world."
Bo Gu contributed to this report.