He may have been ridiculed while in power but former Chinese president Jiang Zemin has inspired a wave of nostalgic political pop art on his 90th birthday, with many seeing the outpouring as an indirect jab at present policies.
“Happy birthday, Uncle Toad! One more second!” a WeChat user wrote on Wednesday under a cartoon of a rectangular pair of glasses in the shape of a “90”.
The meaning of the post is well understood on the mainland, despite complete official media silence on the milestone.
“Uncle Toad” is a nickname originally used to poke fun at his physical appearance and the glasses are the shape of the emblematic eyewear Jiang wore throughout his time at the top. “One more second” is a slogan used by a growing group of his admirers to wish him long life, after repeated reports about Jiang’s ailing health.
The message was one of many posted on the country’s biggest social media platforms by a half-joking group of admirers who have grown since a blogger based in Jiangsu province started in 2014 to write extensively and seriously about the former president, calling Jiang “our toad”.
Among the online birthday cards was a video of Jiang’s presidential highlights, including his hot-tempered lecturing of a Hong Kong journalist in 2004.
Jiang’s popularity online is also set against the public portrayal of President Xi Jinping as a highly knowledgeable leader, despite interruptions to his formal education when he was a teen.
Even Jiang’s once widely ridiculed singing and idiosyncratic diplomatic style have come in for praise. “Jiang didn’t think singing in public was indecent … He shows the world the humane site of China, that its top leader is an ordinary person, not an emperor,” the Jiangsu blogger wrote last year. “A slightly ridiculous leader is much better than an arrogant … and self-centered leader.”
Soon after Xi convened a key meeting in 2014 to urge writers and artists to serve the Communist Party’s political ends, the blogger wrote: “Literature and arts [in Jiang’s time] were not interfered with, the spirit of life was still alive.”