, Beijing, China, Oct 18 – Rumoured to have died a few months ago, 91-year-old former Chinese president Jiang Zemin roused social media users Wednesday by taking a prominent place at the ruling Communist Party’s leadership Congress.
Proving that reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated, the former leader sat next to President Xi Jinping and stood for the national anthem as the twice-a-decade congress opened on national television in Beijing’s vast Great Hall of the People.
Many Chinese internet users gushed over the elderly “Frog” — an affectionate nickname inspired by Jiang’s wide grin and prominent bespectacled eyes — marvelling over the apparently still hale nonagenarian in postings sprinkled with frog emojis.
“I want to ask about his secret for longevity,” said one posting on China’s Twitter-like social network Weibo.
“How many organs must he have had replaced to be standing in the middle of the stage?” asked another, before China’s notorious internet censors swooped in to delete most of the postings within a couple of hours.
Guided into his chair by two ushers, Jiang and his oversized glasses stood out in the crowd of dark-suited party leaders.
He occasionally glanced at his watch or examined Xi’s speech text with a large magnifying glass while his comrades sat motionless, and flashed his trademark smile in a conversation with Xi.
The former party leader and Chinese president for a decade from 1993, Jiang is occasionally the subject of rumours about his demise.
Most recently, in May online speculation swirled that Jiang had died of a stroke in Shanghai, the financial centre he formerly governed as mayor and party chief. He subsequently was seen in public.
Past presidents are typically on hand for the congress, during which the top leadership and party policies for the next five years are set in stone. Jiang’s immediate successor Hu Jintao, 74, was on Xi’s right hand.
– ‘Younger than ever’ –
A former factory engineer, Jiang came to power in the traumatic aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and led China through an era of stunning economic transformation.
Jiang’s legacy remains mixed, however, as rapid economic growth led to ills such as rampant environmental degradation and a widening wealth gap, which today’s leaders are wrestling with.
But with his big smile, grasp of several languages, and sometimes clownish behaviour including making jokes in English, Jiang is fondly remembered by many as a relatively colourful Chinese leader compared to his stiff successors Hu and Xi.
A music lover who played the piano, Jiang was known for bursting into song on foreign trips, including a memorable rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” during a state visit to the Philippines.
“Holy (expletive)! He is getting younger than ever,” said one Weibo posting.
Other than the live television broadcast, Jiang’s presence was largely ignored by state-run media.
Official mention of past leaders has become increasingly rare under Xi, who took power in 2012 and moved swiftly to clamp down on dissent as party mouthpieces push a cult of personality around him.