Perspective: Jiang Zemin's passing marks the end of an era for China As China holds a memorial service for its late leader Jiang Zemin, an NPR correspondent who met Jiang reflects on the figure and his transforming country.

Perspective: Jiang Zemin's passing marks the end of an era for China

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China's Communist Party bid farewell to former leader Jiang Zemin today. The ceremony was led by current leader Xi Jinping, and it comes at a tricky time in Chinese politics. You will recall that last week people took to the streets in cities across China to protest Xi and his strict COVID policies. For more on the moment, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt, who covered both Presidents Xi and Jiang as a reporter in China. Hey, Frank.


KELLY: Tell me how today's ceremony unfolded. How did the Communist Party choose to portray Jiang to honor him?

LANGFITT: Yeah, it was really interesting. Xi Jinping gave nearly an hour-long eulogy, and it was - let me just set the scene. It was in the Great Hall of the People, which is sort of this cavernous building, big auditorium. And you had hundreds and hundreds of officials in dark suits with white carnations in their lapels. And up on stage, Mary Louise, there was a picture, a photo of Jiang that was probably 15 to 20 feet high and...


LANGFITT: Yes, it's huge. I mean, just - I mean, it really was like - it was a little bit like a pageant in some ways. And Xi praised, you know, Jiang as this economic reformer who helped set the stage for, you know, massive economic growth in the country, which made a huge difference in people's lives. He also praised Jiang as a loyal defender of Communist Party power and no softy. This is what Xi said in English translation.


PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Through interpreter) He pointed out that to do a good job of governing the country, the party must first do a good job of governing itself. And that means governing it strictly.

KELLY: Interesting. And I was going to ask, Frank, whether there's anything surprising about all this ceremony and pageantry by President Xi for a man who was his predecessor and who ran the country in a really different way.

LANGFITT: In a really different way. And I think it was a huge sendoff for Jiang Zemin. I mean, it was a surprise in the sense that I don't think analysts see the two of them as buddies. They're very, as you were saying, very different leaders, very different eras. And I can remember - people who follow China will remember this. There was one very, very long Xi speech on national television where Jiang used a giant magnifying glass to read the speech. He repeatedly checked his watch and then even fell asleep at points.

KELLY: (Laughter) Right.

LANGFITT: So they were not seen as close friends. And Jiang was very - he was a funny guy in some ways. Some people think that in the wake of these protests that she may have wanted to show a sense of party solidarity and a unified leadership.

KELLY: You said he was a funny guy. Tell me more about how both these leaders are perceived in China, I mean, as heads of state, but also just as people.

LANGFITT: Yeah, very - completely different. I mean, Jiang was flamboyant. He used to sing in public. I can remember him - a famous TV speech where he just ripped into Hong Kong journalists. Some people probably saw him as a showboat and a bit of a buffoon. But then when Xi came along, you know, this is a guy who is pretty much expressionless and comes across as a Communist Party heavy. Not much of a sense of a discernible personality. And so people actually, quite surprisingly, became nostalgic for Jiang.

If he - if you remember, he had these giant glasses. And some people thought he looked a bit like a toad. So when he turned 90 - this was in 2016 - young people came online praising him in what was called toad worship. And this was also a way to kind of take a dig at Xi, who's, you know, pretty colorless and certainly much more authoritarian in his approach. And I got to say, if you had told me back in 1997 when I started covering China that Jiang would actually have young fans in recent years, I never would have believed it.

KELLY: Yeah. People who listen to NPR now will know you, of course, as our London correspondent. But as you were making very clear, you know China intimately, having spent time there in the '90s, having spent time there under President Xi's era as well, how do those two Chinas compare? Are they two different Chinas?

LANGFITT: They're two very different Chinas. And there's a lot to talk about here, but I'll just focus on freedom and openness. I'll give you an example. In '97, I actually met Jiang at a press conference. He approached me afterwards to finish answering a question and practice his English. This is sort of unthinkable in Xi's era. I mean, his government kicks out foreign reporters. He's referred to them as full-bellied foreigners who have nothing better to do than criticize China. Another example, in 1998, Jiang and President Bill Clinton, they debated the Tiananmen Square crackdown on live TV in China. I covered it. This was unprecedented. Here's what President Clinton said at the time.


BILL CLINTON: We still disagree about the meaning of what happened then. I believe and the American people believe that the use of force and the tragic loss of life was wrong.

LANGFITT: But, you know, Jiang engaged. And he defended the decision. Here's what he said?


JIANG ZEMIN: (Through interpreter) The Chinese people have long drawn a historical conclusion with regard to the political disturbances in 1989. Had the Chinese government not taken the resolute measures, then we could not have enjoyed the stability that we are enjoying today.

LANGFITT: And again, Mary Louise, this is the sort of thing - a public debate on a very sensitive political subject - you would never see in Xi Jinping's China.

KELLY: That is NPR London correspondent and resident China expert Frank Langfitt. Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Mary Louise.

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