Sirens wailed across China as the country came to a standstill Tuesday during a public memorial service for former leader Jiang Zemin, a tentative moment of unity after anti-lockdown protests shook the nation last week. 

Jiang, who died in Shanghai last Wednesday at the age of 96, oversaw a transformational era from the late 1980s into the new millennium. 

Mourners observe three minutes of silence as they pay their respects to former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, who passed away on November 30, outside his hold home in Yangzhou, China’s eastern Jiangsu province on December 6, 2022. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP.

He took power in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and led China towards its emergence as a powerhouse on the global stage.

A public memorial service began at 10:00 am (0200 GMT) Tuesday in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People and was broadcast live across the country.

A nationwide “three-minute silence” was held, as sirens sounded.

In Jiang’s hometown of Yangzhou, around 100 people gathered in front of his former residence to observe the silence. 

Flags across the country were at half-mast as well as at Chinese government buildings overseas.

A screenshot of the memorial service for Jiang Zemin at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on December 6, 2022. Photo: GovHK.

Stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen were set to suspend trading for three minutes, as was the Chinese Gold and Silver Exchange in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s bourse suspended the display of data on external screens at its offices while senior executives observed the silence.

Public entertainment is also suspended on Tuesday, with some online games such as the popular League of Legends announcing a day’s pause.

Mixed legacy

Jiang’s role in crushing the 1989 protests and repressing other political activism, as well as the flourishing of corruption and inequality during his tenure, means he leaves a mixed legacy. 

Beijing’s state media has hailed Jiang as a great communist revolutionary, highlighting his part in quelling “serious political turmoil”.

“Jiang Zemin was an outstanding leader enjoying high prestige,” read a Xinhua biography titled “Jiang Zemin’s great, glorious life”.

Jiang Zemin and ex-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa. Photo: GovHK.

“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.”

Jiang died of leukaemia and multiple organ failure after medical treatments failed, according to state media. 

His body was cremated Monday in Beijing at a ceremony attended by President Xi Jinping and other top leaders, Xinhua said.

Former leader Hu Jintao — who was escorted out of a top Communist Party meeting in October in a dramatic incident that grabbed global attention — also reportedly attended.

Nostalgia

The anti-Covid lockdown protests that flared up in China last week were the most widespread public demonstrations in the country since rallies calling for political reform in 1989.

Despite Jiang’s role in helping to crush the 1989 rallies, his death has prompted nostalgia among some Chinese for a time seen as more liberal and tolerant of dissent.

A demonstration in Beijing in 1989, with a banner in foreground reading: “People in charge of country.” Photo: HRIC archive, courtesy of Gail Butler, Libby Schmalz.

“The Jiang era, while not the most prosperous era, was a more tolerant one,” one user on the Twitter-like 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.

On Thursday, Jiang’s body was flown to Beijing where it was met at the airport by Xi and other top leaders, footage from CCTV showed.

Wearing matching black armbands with a white flower pinned to their jackets, Xi and colleagues bowed in unison as Jiang was brought off the plane, his trademark heavy-rimmed glasses clearly visible through a glass coffin.

A memorial for late ex-Chinese leader in the Liaison Office. Photo: DotDotNews/Pool.

In retirement, Jiang had become 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 CCTV’s post announcing his death on the Twitter-like social media platform Weibo within an hour, many referring to him as “Grandpa Jiang”.

After the announcement, 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.

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