The politics of toad kings and fairy tales in China

Jiang Zemin Matryshyoka dolls Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption China's leaders: From Sun Yat-sen to Jiang Zemin

Old politicians never die in China.

They may "retire" but in the godfather realm of China's Communist Party elite, some never give up influence. And in a political culture which allows the public no direct criticism of those in power, expressing nostalgia for the past is the safest way of attacking the present. So dead or alive, these political ghosts can haunt their successors and present a potent threat.

This week's extraordinary display of so-called "toad worship" is just such a challenge. No wonder the censorship machine is working overtime to crush it.

Image copyright Weibo
Image caption "Happy Birthday Uncle Toad": Many on Chinese social media led tributes to the former leader as he turned 90

"Toad worship" is the cult of former President Jiang Zemin. The worshippers are often young people who weren't even born when Mr Jiang became China's leader in 1989.

Their sharing of his quotes, photos and videos started as mockery. His heavy black-rimmed glasses, huge mouth and high-waisted trousers, make him a gratifyingly amphibian figure of fun.

Image copyright Weibo
Image caption Many on social media made the fond comparison

Jiang Zemin turned 90 on Wednesday and his "worshippers" have flocked to send him birthday wishes and "one more second", a moment of their lives to extend his.

Many changed their profile pictures to a pair of thick-rimmed glasses. Social media has seen a blizzard of images of the ebullient Jiang playing ukulele, waltzing, singing Elvis Presley, scolding journalists and speaking in heavily accented English.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The "ebullience" of Jiang Zemin was celebrated by his fans

This cult of toad is freely chosen, unlike the official personality cult that now surrounds President Xi Jinping. And so in some quarters, the mockery of Mr Jiang is now mixed with affection, a subtly indirect way of making Mr Xi the target of ridicule.

Once upon a time...

By underlining that two decades ago China had a leader who was open, human and friendly to the west, the toad worshippers are making the point that in Xi Jinping they now have a leader who is not.

One blogger put it bluntly: "A slightly ridiculous leader is much better than an arrogant... and self-centred one."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Comparing former President Jiang Zemin (far right) has proven useful for making a point about President Xi Jinping (far left)

No wonder the incumbent sees this nostalgia for his predecessor as dangerous. So there was no media coverage of Jiang Zemin's 90th birthday and he has not been seen in public for months. Even online searches for his name or "toad worship" are blocked, and happy birthday posts deleted.

To those who live in a more relaxed political climate, the censorship may seem small minded and petty, but in China, the political elite remember only too well that in 1989, it was mourning for a leader who had passed away which triggered the Tiananmen Square democracy protests.

Satirical as the toad worship cult is, it presents a challenge. This is not lost on anyone, least of all the worshippers themselves.

One of their favourite toad quotes is "too simple, too naïve" which an exasperated Mr Jiang once shouted at journalists who were baiting him.

Chinese politics is anything but simple and naive. It is a subtle world rich in literary and historical allegory.

And in Xi Jinping's China, talking openly about politics has become so dangerous that allegory now presents the only choice.

Image copyright AP
Image caption In China, the political elite remember only too well that in 1989, it was mourning for a dead leader that triggered pro-democracy protests

So what is the right allegory? I muse on this often. Is the cult of toad the fairy tale of the frog prince? Or is it a version of Snow White where the cottage in the wood with seven dwarfs becomes a villa complex and staff near Shanghai? Is Xi's China more Alice in Wonderland or 1984?

Mirror, mirror on the wall

When the jealous queen in the fairy tale Snow White gets the wrong answer to this question, she orders a huntsman to take her dangerously beautiful stepdaughter into the woods and murder her.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Jiang Zemin and George W Bush back in the day

Xi Jinping may be a jealous ruler, but this is the 21st Century and he does not have his rivals murdered.

If the laws of nature were to obey Beijing's diktats, the 90-year-old Mr Jiang would soon take himself off the earthly political stage.

In the meantime the best the Xi team can do is confine Mr Jiang to the equivalent of Snow White's cottage in the wood, build high walls around it and isolate the former president more completely by removing his political allies, his "seven dwarves", through corruption trials.

Jiang Zemin is not the only veteran silenced. Recently I was exploring avenues to win an interview with another retired leader and was told such an interview would be impossible because the individual in question was "locked in a gilded cage".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The case of Pu Zhiqiang (right) has gained international prominence

In some respects the gilded cage of the elders has a grimmer parallel in the very limited freedom enjoyed by newly "released" human rights lawyers like Wang Yu and Pu Zhiqiang. The court tells us they are now free from jail, but they are not free to travel, to meet who they like or to speak their mind.

So what does their "freedom" amount to? This is where we veer into Orwell's 1984.

The dilemma for the real toadies

But going back to Snow White, the queen's "mirror, mirror on the wall" is a good approximation of the Communist Party propaganda machine.

Due to the formidable powers of its media monopoly, this mirror hangs on every wall in the land intoning on loop the refrain that President Xi is "the most beautiful one of all".

Which brings me back to toady culture.

Not the "toadies" of toad worship, who are making coded satirical points about the current political establishment through their affection for a bespectacled, portly former president, but the real toadies who, for the sake of political survival, line up to offer flattery and fealty to the incumbent leader.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption "The most beautiful of them all"?

It's this kind of toadyism, enforced through fear, which dictates that there should be no mention of a predecessor's 90th birthday.

Age is another strikingly surreal aspect of China's alternative politics.

It is not a dashing youthful Che Guevara figure on the T-shirts and mobile phone cases of the toad worshippers, but an endearingly flawed 90-year-old, railing at reporters, boasting about his accomplishments, floating on his back in swimming trunks and goggles, or combing his hair in the presence of the Spanish king.

And he's not the only nonagenarian rebel with a cause.

Also in Beijing's sights is a group of Party veterans suddenly excluded from the history magazine they've published for decades.

Yanhuang Chunqiu's publisher Du Daozheng is in his 90s and one of its luminaries and Li Rui is over 100. But age is no defence against accusations of disloyalty in Xi's China.

It's unclear whether the chief offence here is daring to have convictions at all, or surviving to the kind of advanced age which bestows dangerous authority when it comes to separating historical fact from fiction.

And through the looking glass

Now this feels less like 1984 or Snow White and more like the ultra surreal Alice in Wonderland where the Queen keeps roaring "off with their heads" at anyone who contradicts her, and the King suddenly invents rule 42: "All persons more than a mile high to leave the court."

Now, "toadies", I don't want to upset the true believers among you, but it's time to tackle your amphibian prince.

This kissing a frog and turning him into a prince is surely a case of rose-tinted spectacles.

Let's face it, Jiang Zemin was often vain and self -regarding in office, he oversaw a period of explosive corruption, and after his retirement from active politics, his placemen and cronies threw grit in the wheels of the next team's attempts at reform.

Surely it's a sobering measure of the absence of real political royalty when nostalgia makes a prince out of this particular frog?

So if you're a member of the Chinese Communist Party, look into your own mirror this weekend and ask yourself whether you are a toady or a "Toady"?

If you're young and smart and imaginative for your country, ask yourself… even if only in the privacy of your own head… whether there should be space to be something else again?

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