(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
That is sound from the Chinese Communist Party’s memorial service that was held this morning for one of its former leaders, Jiang Zemin, who died last week at the age of 96.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Jiang helped to oversee the country’s economic transformation during what is now seen as a time of relative freedom.
MARTIN: NPR’s Frank Langfitt covered Jiang when he was China’s president in the ’90s and watched the memorial service from London. Hey, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Good morning. Explain how the party is remembering this leader.
LANGFITT: Yeah, well, Xi Jinping came out today as the current leader, of course, and eulogized Jiang sort of as this defender of the party in the country. He cited Jiang fighting what he called the risk of succession by Taiwan. And, of course, Jiang also oversaw the return – it was a smooth return back then – of Hong Kong to Chinese rule back in 1997. And Xi added this, which is translated into English.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Through interpreter) He also led China to join the WTO, thus forming a new pattern of opening up to the outside world.
LANGFITT: And of course, joining the World Trade Organization was a huge step for the country. It really boosted China’s integration with the world economy and also set the stage for sort of the turbocharged economic growth that we’ve seen since.
MARTIN: So as we noted, you covered Jiang. You even met him. You also covered Xi. How different, Frank, is the China of Jiang Zemin from the one we see today?
LANGFITT: It’s really dramatic, Rachel. You know, this China now that Xi oversees is vastly wealthier than the China that I first covered. And lives have been transformed in many positive ways. But Xi’s China also is a lot more repressive. Back in the ’90s when it was under Jiang, it was a much more relaxed society. And I’ll just give you this personal example because I was reminded of it when Jiang passed away. Back in ’97, there was this impromptu press conference at the Great Hall of the People, where this memorial is actually being held, and a bunch of American reporters came down, and Jiang was heading to the United States to meet President Clinton. He wanted to make a good impression on Americans. He wanted to get China into the WTO. So we just asked him questions. It was very relaxed – unusual situation.
And afterwards, he came up to me. And it was this rare human moment – I could see he was nervous. He was practicing his English for the trip. And he said, you know, once Americans get to know me, they’ll understand China more, and they’ll feel more comfortable. And I want to contrast this with Xi Jinping. I mean, he doesn’t chat with foreign reporters. His government, frankly, more often threatens them and in some cases – many cases – has kicked them out of the country.
MARTIN: Why the difference? Why was Jiang’s era more – so much more relaxed?
LANGFITT: I think Rachel, in Jiang’s era, China needed more from the West. They needed trade investment, needed to get into the World Trade Organization. There was also a sense at the time in the late ’90s that China would probably become more tolerant and be able to get along reasonably well with the U.S. and the West, still be authoritarian. Now, when Xi took over a decade later, the party was facing mass corruption. He cracked down on that. He also really crushed dissent to prevent criticism of the party at a vulnerable time for its leadership. The image of the West really declined in China the last couple of decades. Now Xi and China, as we see with his “zero-COVID” policy and these street protests – they also have a lot of challenges they have to deal with.
MARTIN: NPR’s Frank Langfitt. Thanks, Frank.
LANGFITT: Good to talk, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.