The protests in Shanghai were, at times, subtle enough that in another country they might not have counted as protests at all. Many of the people in attendance were standing quietly; their more provocative acts were limited to brandishing blank pages of white paper, which by definition didn’t say anything. Even when the scene escalated, such as when individuals were arrested, the energy soon subsided. The crowd was like a pot of water on a faulty hob, never quite reaching boiling point.
Elsewhere in China, alongside frequent flashes of outrage, double meanings also became part of the performance. “Please do not gather,” some participants wrote on the other side of their blank sheets of paper, which they were ready to flip and show the police. At one vigil, rather than the by now well-known slogan “we don’t want PCR tests”, students instead chanted, with equal fervour, “we want PCR tests” (the video ends with quiet laughter). This is known as yin yang guai qi, “the weirdness of yin and yang”, an expression that refers to a deliberate and often sarcastic strain of ambiguity.
A palpable sense of anger over China’s zero-Covid regime, which was relaxed this week in a dramatic shift in tone, may have been more widespread. But such unusually public displays of discontent did not last long. When, a few days later, Jiang Zemin, the former president of China who oversaw a period of economic liberalisation in the post-Tiananmen 1990s, died, there were no protests at all. In fact, the streets of Shanghai were quiet, if not quite as quiet as during its lockdown. The reaction online was a different matter, but there, the subtlety was so deep that it was almost impossible for an outsider to determine whether it amounted to a protest or not.
Within the online cult of moha, or toad worship — so named because its object Jiang Zemin supposedly looks like a toad — there are three sacred texts (in fact, they are video clips, but the Chinese uses a character that refers to written materials). The first shows Jiang at a press conference in Beijing in 2000, excoriating a group of Hong Kong journalists for being “too young”, “too simple” and “sometimes naive” after one asked whether he endorsed the territory’s chief executive. “I’ve been through hundreds of battles! I’ve seen it all!” he exclaims to murmurs of laughter. “What country in the west have I not been to?”
There comes a point when footage seems to take on a particular aspect, whether in its colours or the sharpness of the image, that signifies it has now become a part of history. That may not have yet been the case when the moha movement began, roughly a decade ago. But it is unmistakably the case now, when the videos have circulated widely to both commemorate Jiang’s death and act as a disguised critique of the present.
Initially, moha was not necessarily flattering to the former president, and not only because it compares him to a toad; it arose at a time when political figures could be more easily criticised, and its incipient humour is bound up with the youthful thrill of mocking an authority figure. By now, though, the clips have become laced with a nostalgia for an era which feels less menacing and more hopeful than the present.
One diplomat in China, who was stationed in Beijing around the year 2000, told me in the aftermath of the protests that local journalists used to say to him “we can’t write that yet”, with the stress on the final syllable. The constraints were mitigated by the sense of an arc of progress. “The whole atmosphere behind that phrase is something that is lacking now,” the diplomat said. “And that was the Tiananmen nation”.
In the second text of toad worship, Jiang is interviewed in 2000 on the US TV show 60 Minutes by the journalist Mike Wallace. The discussion is surprisingly open — at one point the two debate the meaning of the word “dictatorship”. At another, Jiang breaks into English to recite the Gettysburg Address, evidently charming his interlocutor.
It turns out that Jiang used to tell another story about reciting those lines, when he faced down protesting students in 1986 in Shanghai. He saw posters of the Gettysburg Address on the university walls, and reprimanded the students for not understanding the text, according to his own version of events recounted in a 1989 LA Times article. His ascension to power came in the fraught period after the Tiananmen protests, which Xi Jinping referred to in remarks at his funeral on Tuesday.
As Wallace reminds him in their interview, Jiang was himself a student protester in 1946; he graduated before the Communist party came to power three years later. He is at home in the cosmopolitan world of a global canon, in contrast with Xi, who instead draws his identity from an avuncular, rural tradition (he is sometimes called Xi Dada, or “Uncle Xi”).
The protests in Shanghai had their own tissue of quotations. One student told me it was “her duty” to attend. I thought this was a striking phrase, so asked what she meant. She showed me a YouTube video on her phone of a protester, cycling to Tiananmen Square in 1989. “It’s my duty!” he exclaims to a foreign journalist who asked why he was going, except he was laughing as he said it, and I did not see her laugh at all.
Other young people I met were so excited to speak to the media that they spoke at least twice as quickly as normal. But sometimes they would also speak as though they were also quoting some famous extract from a text. “I am 24 years old. I am a citizen,” one said, and there was a hint of some mischievous self-parody in his voice, mingled with the gravity of a first-person pronoun that had not quite declared itself enough.
It is not that humour was absent, but it was always hovering on the edge of some other emotion. “Marx and Engels?” quipped students in Beijing, in response to claims that foreign forces were at play in the protests. It is a first-rate joke in writing, but the clip itself is different; it shows voices strained with exasperation, and all of a sudden, like moha, it is no longer a joke.
If Jiang’s personality were a pot of water, it would frequently boil over. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the clips is just how freely and confidently he speaks, compared to officials today of all ranks. Footage last month of Xi Jinping criticising Justin Trudeau, in a seemingly unscripted moment that provided a rare glimpse into his personality, was not circulated at all within China. When I cycled past Shanghai’s Huadong hospital, and asked the guard if this was the place from which Jiang’s body had been taken that day, I was surprised that he even answered the question. Yes, he said, it was.
It is hard to imagine a more ambiguous creature than a toad, an animal that in Chinese culture has faintly auspicious qualities and in others might even harbour the soul of a prince. The third text of toad worship contains no English at all, and is more restrained. It is not, in fact, funny. This time Jiang, revisiting a state-owned company where he once worked, recites a different text, a poem by a Qing dynasty official: “I shall dedicate myself to the interests of the country, in life and death, irrespective of personal weal and woe.”
I asked one adherent of the moha movement whether this was an unusual display of erudition. But it turns out everyone learns those lines in school. My assumption behind the question, that the poem resonated in an environment where creativity was stifled, wasn’t quite right either. “You become creative,” she said. In an open environment, you wouldn’t need the expressiveness of yin yang guai qi. She had travelled to many different places, and by now had a small collection, some of them carved in plain wood, and some of them painted in garish colours, but all of them recognisably toads.
Thomas Hale is the FT’s Shanghai correspondent
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