China has bid farewell to Jiang Zemin, with sirens blaring out in tribute as people across the country observed three minutes of silence for the former president.
The public memorial service for Jiang, who died last week at the age of 96, began at 10am local (02:00 GMT) on Tuesday in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, with President Xi Jinping and other top leaders attending. The event was broadcast live across the country.
Jiang leaves a controversial legacy, having led China out of isolation after the army crushed student-led pro-democracy protests centred on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, while at the same time supporting economic reforms that led to a decade of explosive growth.
A trained engineer and former head of China’s largest city, Shanghai, Jiang was president for a decade until 2003 and led the ruling Communist Party for 13 years until 2002. After taking over from reformist leader Deng Xiaoping, he oversaw the return of Hong Kong from British rule in 1997 and Beijing’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001.
Speaking at Tuesday’s sombre memorial service, Xi paid tribute to Jiang for ensuring the Communist Party’s survival from “political storms”, saying the late leader had had assumed leadership at a time when the party, military and country were at “a serious moment of external pressure and internal difficulties” – a reference to the Tiananmen Square protests.
“Some Western countries imposed so-called ‘sanctions’ on China,” Xi said, but Jiang stepped forward to press reform and opening up and to strengthen the party’s ties with the people.
Jiang, who had firm beliefs and was decisive, upheld China’s independence, dignity, security and stability, Xi said. “He had the extraordinary courage to make bold decisions and the great courage to carry out theoretical innovation at critical moments,” Xi added.
‘Great proletarian revolutionary’
The Communist Party meanwhile declared Jiang a “great proletarian revolutionary” and “long-tested Communist fighter”.
“Jiang Zemin was an outstanding leader enjoying high prestige,” read a biography titled “Jiang Zemin’s great, glorious life” published by the official Xinhua news agency on Tuesday. “During his revolutionary career of more than 70 years, he remained unswervingly firm in communist ideals, utterly loyal to the party and the people, and resolutely committed to the cause of the party and the people.”
In Jiang’s hometown of Yangzhou, about 100 people gathered in front of his former residence on Tuesday to observe the silence.
Flags across the country and at Chinese government buildings overseas were at half-mast.
Stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen suspended trading for three minutes, as did the Chinese Gold and Silver Exchange in Hong Kong. Public entertainment was also suspended, with some online games such as the popular League of Legends announcing a day’s pause.
Jiang died of leukaemia and multiple organ failure on November 30, according to state media.
Xi and other top officials paid their respects to Jiang at a ceremony at a military hospital in Beijing before his body was sent for cremation at the Babaoshan cemetery, where many of the country’s top leaders are interred. State broadcaster CCTV showed Xi and others bowing towards Jiang, his trademark heavy-rimmed glasses clearly visible through a glass coffin.
Former leader Hu Jintao — who was escorted out of a top Communist Party meeting in October in a dramatic incident that grabbed global attention — was also pictured at the event.
Al Jazeera’s Patrick Fok, reporting from Hong Kong, described the timing of Jiang’s death as “remarkable”, not only because it comes so soon after that Communist Party Congress — where Xi was appointed as the organisation’s general secretary for an unprecedented third term — but also because it comes days after a wave of protests against the government’s “zero COVID” policy rocked the nation.
Fok said authorities are on high alert across the country, with a heavy police presence reported in Beijing and Shanghai.
Jiang’s death has also prompted nostalgia among some Chinese for a time seen as more liberal and tolerant of dissent.
“The Jiang era, while not the most prosperous era, was a more tolerant one,” one user on the Twitter-like social media platform Weibo wrote following his death.
“I have heard many criticisms of him, but the fact that he allowed critical voices to exist shows how he is worthy of praise,” wrote another.