Chinese state newspapers and popular ecommerce superapps and websites adopted sombre, black-and-white colour schemes on Thursday in honour of Jiang Zemin, as China’s official organs grappled with how to handle the legacy of the former leader.
The subtle memorial for Jiang, who died aged 96 in Shanghai on Wednesday, came as obituaries in state media outlets credited the former president with restoring national stability during his 13-year tenure, which followed the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre.
Chinese media and businesses face a delicate task in honouring Jiang without drawing too obvious a contrast with China’s increasingly authoritarian current leader Xi Jinping, who has steadily centralised power including by securing an unprecedented third term in October.
The issue has become more sensitive after a rare bout of dissent across the country at the weekend against Xi’s strict zero-Covid regime.
Jiang’s complicated legacy also included improving ties with the west and wider world, and deepening the economic reforms begun by his predecessor Deng Xiaoping, analysts said. He helped embed the influence of the “Shanghai clique”, a faction that dominated national politics until Xi cemented his grip on power.
Analysts said the Chinese Communist party leadership would carefully manage the memory of Jiang, who many recall for his distinctive black glasses and boisterous media appearances.
“The party is always good at . . . rewriting the past in order to make it more consistent with the present,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, emeritus professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Newspapers including the People’s Daily, the party’s official mouthpiece, and nationalist tabloid Global Times drained their front pages and websites of colour in memory of Jiang on Thursday. Popular apps including ecommerce platforms Pinduoduo and Alibaba’s Taobao, video platform Bilibili and payments app Alipay also reverted to black-and-white schemes.
Websites for government organs and state-owned institutions, such as Bank of China, were also in black and white.
The Hong Kong Observatory, which many in the city rely on for accurate weather information, also greyed out its webpage, leading to complaints that visitors could not read parts of its forecasts, which use colour-coded rain maps. Some privately owned newspapers in Hong Kong also adopted the black-and-white colour scheme for their print edition mastheads.
On Wednesday evening, an obituary in state newswire Xinhua praised Jiang for safeguarding “national independence, dignity, security and stability”.
The Xinhua obituary also highlighted Jiang’s role in overseeing the handover of Hong Kong and Macau to Chinese control in 1997 and 1999 respectively and helping to modernise the country’s military.
Cabestan said that the party would probably emphasise Jiang’s role in cracking down on dissidents in the aftermath of Tiananmen and against the Falun Gong spiritual group in the 1990s in its memorialising.
“Maybe there was less personality cult [than for Xi] and leadership was more collective, but they are going to erase that,” he added.
A separate notice issued by an official funeral committee, headed by Xi, ordered that flags outside Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, the ministry of foreign affairs, overseas embassies and liaison offices in Hong Kong and Macau would be flown at half-mast. No foreign delegations would be invited to take part in mourning activities, the notice added.
Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong said it would set up a mourning hall in its building from Thursday for visitors but mourners would need to present negative Covid-19 tests and wear N95 masks.
People were seen queueing outside to offer chrysanthemums as a tribute to Jiang.
Additional reporting by Chan Ho-him and Cheng Leng in Hong Kong, Thomas Hale in Shanghai and Maiqi Ding in Beijing