by Matthew Walsh and Michael Zhang, with Su Xinqi in Hong Kong

Mobile apps and state media websites turned black-and-white, flags on some government buildings in Beijing were at half-mast, and flowers were laid on Thursday as China mourned the death of former leader Jiang Zemin.

State media said Jiang had died of leukaemia and multiple organ failure in Shanghai on Wednesday at the age of 96, and that funeral preparations had begun.

Jiang Zemin. File photo: Wikicommons.

Floral tributes were laid in Jiang’s hometown of Yangzhou and nearby Shanghai, where police were deployed in force on Thursday morning around the intersections near the hospital where he was rumoured to have died, AFP reporters saw.

They saw a convoy of vehicles coming from the direction of the hospital at around 12:45 pm (0445 GMT), led by a car bearing what appeared to be a wreath of yellow flowers on its bonnet.

The convoy then headed toward Hongqiao airport.

Police ordered pedestrians to leave the intersection an hour earlier as bussed-in bystanders gathered around the crossroads wearing drab-coloured clothing and face masks.

Pictures sent to AFP by someone living along one of the major roads nearby showed people lining the pavement holding white chrysanthemums, a traditional Chinese funeral flower.

Some held a banner saying “May you have safe travels, old classmate”.

Officials in yellow vests lined the road, with some perched on high buildings overlooking the highway. 

Jiang’s funeral committee is headed by President Xi Jinping, state media said.

No date was given for the event but it is expected that it will be held in Beijing.

‘Grandpa Jiang’

Jiang’s legacy is mixed. Many welcomed his humorous public persona as a breath of fresh air after decades of staid communist leadership, while critics accused him of allowing rampant corruption, inequality and the repression of political activists.

A Chinese flag at half mast outside the Liaison Office. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

In retirement, he became the subject of light-hearted memes among millennial and Gen Z Chinese fans, who called themselves “toad worshippers” in thrall to his frog-like countenance and quirky mannerisms.

More than half a million commenters flooded state broadcaster CCTV’s post on the Twitter-like platform Weibo within an hour of his death being announced, many referring to him as “Grandpa Jiang”.

Pictures on social media on Thursday showed the walls of Jiang’s old residence in Yangzhou lined with bouquets of flowers, with some people bowing as they placed them there. 

The owner of a nearby flower shop told AFP she received more than 100 orders from people who wished to pay tribute, some coming from people outside Yangzhou using delivery apps. 

“We are not the one with the most orders, some shops nearer got several hundred delivery orders,” she said.

One student in his 20s told AFP he had ordered flowers using the Meituan delivery app to pay tribute to “a humorous and highly educated elder”.

CCTV said Wednesday that flags would be flown at half-mast at some government buildings until the funeral.

The websites of state media and government-owned businesses turned black-and-white, as did apps such as Alipay, Taobao and even McDonald’s China.

‘Easygoing and humorous’ 

In semi-autonomous Hong Kong, mourners who turned up early on Thursday at Beijing’s Liaison Office hoping to pay tribute were turned away because the office wasn’t ready. 

After waiting nearly two hours, more than a dozen people — mostly students and professionals from mainland China — were told to come back in the afternoon. 

A Hong Kong woman surnamed Chan, 50, told AFP she decided to go because she found Jiang “very easygoing and humorous”. 

Mourners queue in line to lay flowers outside the Liaison Office. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

A mainland Chinese student queuing behind Chan was surprised. 

“I didn’t expect any local Hong Kongers to commemorate him,” he said, without giving his name. 

Edward, 26, a mainland Chinese student in Hong Kong, said Jiang was “the most open and educated leader”. 

“He made the market economy part of the mainstream in China … without that there would be no hope for democracy,” he said. 

Hong Kong officials including leader John Lee paid their respects on Thursday afternoon. 

Lee posted a picture on Facebook of himself bowing before a large portrait of Jiang inside a hall filled with huge yellow and white flower arrangements. 

A memorial for late ex-Chinese leader in the Liaison Office. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Hundreds of people also queued to lay chrysanthemums outside the Liaison Office later on Thursday, one of the city’s coldest days this year. 

An AFP reporter saw more than a dozen people distributing flowers, some of which arrived in a van, to crowds waiting a few blocks from the office.

Some of them held name lists and directed groups of people to join the queue.

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