Mourning Becomes China: Trending News Buzz



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The second category of death involves well-known people whose passing may call for official mourning but may also spark widespread outrage. The most well-known instance of this occurred in 1989. A memorial for Hu Yaobang, a former general secretary of the CCP, served as the starting point for what evolved into weeks of widespread protests that culminated in massive rallies in Tiananmen Square and the June 4 massacre.

Hu was accused of taking a too-soft stance toward student protests that had started in late 1986, leading to his demotion from his top position in the party hierarchy in 1987. The CCP had to memorialize him because he was still a politburo member when he passed away in April 1989, but they made an effort to keep the festivities low-key. Students took advantage of the occasion to display posters, wave banners, and chant slogans about how the nation would have been better off if Hu had lived rather than more conservative leaders.

The final week of November was uneasy for current CCP officials, who are well aware of previous precedents. This was due to the quick succession of both types of deaths.

In Urumqi, a city in the Xinjiang province with a sizable Uyghur minority, a building fire claimed the lives of at least 10 individuals on November 24, a Thursday. As soon as word of the deaths circulated, numerous sources cited zero-COVID lockdown procedures as having hampered firemen’ and residents’ attempts to escape and put out the fire. Weekend vigils for the deaths began to be held soon in cities all around China, the first such public gatherings on the streets in many years. As attendees requested revisions to the zero-COVID policy incensed by its sloppy and cruel execution, these vigils turned into protests. The protests in Urumqi, which had been under lockdown for months, were repeated in Shanghai, which had undergone a protracted lockdown in the spring, as well as in numerous other cities.

Some demonstrators then mocked government censorship by holding up blank pieces of paper. Others cited phrases from protest banners flown from a bridge in Beijing in October that proclaimed freedom and denounced authoritarianism. Some people even directly denounced Xi Jinping.

Jiang Zemin, a former general secretary of the CCP and president of the nation (both positions are now held by Xi Jinping), passed away on November 30 at the age of 96. (and by Hu Jintao before him). The Urumqi fire-related public protests had largely subsided by that point, but tensions about lockdowns persisted. The authorities acted right away to prevent a second protest from emerging from fresh grief. Censors were told to prevent debate of Jiang’s death online from going in perilous areas. The CCP also took action to put an end to any potential for disruption at the beginning of December by assaulting demonstrators to convey one message and making some concessions to the zero-COVID policy to communicate another.

It may appear that Xi and his associates overreacted in their response to what Jiang’s death might mean. Jiang was a revered retired statesman and party elder at the time of his death, which had been repeatedly reported to have already occurred, therefore he did not serve as a plausible posthumous emblem for protesters. There were no overt protest-tinged memorial services that competed with the state celebration that Xi presided over, but there were quieter demonstrations of discontent. Others played on the parallel nicknames for the two leaders, contrasting the affectionate “Grandpa Jiang,” which China’s internet censors have recently banned, with the officially promoted nickname “Grandpa Xi.” Some people went online to praise Jiang pointedly for qualities that Xi lacks, such as a willingness to give interviews to journalists (including foreign ones). Some social media users praised Jiang’s era as a golden period of wealth and relative freedom—things that had progressively been lost under Hu, and even more so under Xi—despite the fact that he came to power at the time of the June 4 massacre, which he later justified.

There are a number of recent examples that can be used to put everything that has occurred since November 24 into context. The most recent were the strikes that broke out at a sizable iPhone facility in Zhengzhou right before the fire in Urumqi. Unrest was centred on the idea that COVID policies intended to save lives were occasionally putting them in risk. For example, one of the working circumstances that incited unrest was the possibility of confining healthy employees next to sick ones. Social media posts about the factory turmoil gave people a sense that protest was coming even if they were distinct from the vigils that occurred later in the month.

A bus accident that occurred on September 18 as 27 persons were being transported from Guiyang to a quarantine facility in a different area of Guizhou province resulted in their deaths. A surge of online criticism of the zero-COVID policy’s implementation followed that human tragedy. Social media users are now referring to the bus accident as a comparable embarrassment for Communist-ruled China because it occurred on the anniversary of a Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, a traumatizing event described in official histories as a “national humiliation” for pre-Communist China.

The reaction to Jiang’s death was foreshadowed by an earlier incident in the pandemic—indeed, by another noteworthy death. Early in 2020, Li Wenliang, a doctor known for blowing the whistle on COVID’s risks, met his end because of his efforts to do so. The CCP initially denounced him for spreading malicious “rumors,” but after he had already passed away from the illness, they changed their tune and praised him as a brave martyr who stood up for his country and told the truth. Users on social media continue to remember Li as a dearly departed brother or uncle on the February anniversary of his passing. Despite the CCP’s efforts to pay tribute to him, his legacy is frequently honoured with some form of covert or overt criticism of the party leadership.

The impact of the Urumqi apartment building incident, which tragically resulted in the deaths of Uyghur people, on Chinese debates of discrimination against such Turkic Muslim groups, including significant human rights abuses, in Xinjiang is something to keep an eye on right now. James Millward, a regional historian, claims in a recent editorial piece for the New York Times that it was “rare and sad” to see “Han Chinese condemning the killings of Uyghurs.” The Chinese party-state, he noted, has “justified its Xinjiang policies for years by portraying Uyghurs as terrorists and religious radicals, or at least as illiterate peasants in need of forced ‘vocational training,'” He claimed that at least some Han Chinese living far from Xinjiang saw the Uyghurs as “humanized and normalized” after seeing the photographs “from the Urumqi fire.” He pointed out that some of the online-disseminated slogans used the words “we are all Xinjiang people” and referred to the fire victims as “compatriots.” The vigils and demonstrations, in Millward’s opinion, represented a rare instance of interethnic cooperation in China and an implicit refutation of the government’s portrayal of Uyghurs as potentially dangerous Islamists and terrorists.

We can also anticipate that November 24 will have a place on the political calendar as another occasion that might be associated with sombre remarks that could have a political undertone. In China, disasters involving the deaths of regular people have shown to be even more powerfully remembered than renowned people. One such trauma was the June 4 massacre, which resulted in the deaths of both student protestors and Beijing citizens of various ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. The actions that the government takes to prevent that anniversary from being observed each year is evidence of that anniversary’s power. Up until recently, the manner activists in Hong Kong responded to the June 4 massacre stood in stark contrast to the lack of a memorial service on the mainland. Beijing then tightened the screws there as well in 2020. When the anniversaries of Li’s passing and the Urumqi fire roll around in the next year, Xi Jinping and his allies will have to hope that a softer zero-COVID policy will make the Chinese people less outraged and less likely to demonstrate once more.

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