Since December 5, a buzzword—“[it] mainly depends one’s aura of elegance”—has gone viral on major Chinese social media platforms. It derived from a crossover-style photo from a Taiwanese singer’s latest album, in which she dressed and posed elegantly while holding a burger. On Sina Weibo, China’s largest Twitter-like service, the phrase is the top trending topic, attracting almost a million posts of discussion. Similarly, many WeChat users find their Moment Update dominated by the phrase, often along with the sender’s selfie. But while many lighthearted Chinese Internet users and celebrities are joining the trending hashtag and posting pictures of themselves, a number of enterprising commenters and cyber-essayists have employed the phrase to praise former Chinese President Jiang Zemin as “the man of elegance”.

This instance is a partial reflection of the recent wave of nostalgia for Mr. Jiang, which seems to have gained its momentum particularly since late last year. It started primary as satire mocking Jiang’s toad-like outlook and lingering influence over politics but has somehow developed into a sense of worship towards Jiang’s achievement and talents. According to Baidu Trend analysis, the search frequency of “Elder”, a common nickname used by Chinese Internet users to refer to Jiang, saw a surge since late 2014 and continued to grow in 2015. Underlying the sense of “toad worship”, there is a mix of critique of the political inefficacy and inaction during the Hu-Wen period and now of the current President Xi Jinping’s rigid ruling styles as well as people’s seemingly growing  admiration for Mr .Jiang’s outgoing personalities.

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“(It) mainly depends on your aura of elegance.” In an WeChat Moment update, the author of a newly-launched WeChat public account that mainly writes articles about Mr. Jiang, posted the simple phrase along with a profile picture of Mr. Jiang in suit. “The Moment update has been approved by hundreds of ‘Hasi’ and they invited me to write a report.” explained the author, “That’s why I compiled the ‘Worship Guidelines for The Developing Trend of the Yangzhou Sage’s elegance’ (Yangzhou city in Jiangsu province, southeast China is Jiang’s birthplace).” “Hasi”, translated as “toad fan”, is what Jiang’s worshippers called themselves. While the ugly-looking “toad” (“haha” or “hama” in Chinese) is often used to refer to Jiang, “sage” is another friendly nickname for the 89-year-old Jiang besides “Elder”.

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Search frequency of the term “elder” or “长者” in the past two years on Baidu.

In the “guidelines”, published on December 6 in the WeChat public account, the author asked subscribers to “see how elegant President Jiang is”. Old photos of Jiang’s impromptu performance at a music show when visiting the United States in 1997, playing “Alloha Hawaii” with Ukulele in Honolulu or floating int the Dead Sea wearing his signature high-waisted swim pants and googles are included. Within a day, the post has over 16,000 views and is liked by 156 users. The account was officially launched less than two months ago on October 26 as “a platform to upgrade ourselves through Jiang’s extensive and profound knowledge”.

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It is not alone. In 2014, a WeChat public account named “Seminar on the Selected Essays of Jiang” came out. Although the articles were text-based and written in a more serious and academic language than many other Jiang-related posts on the Internet, the account quickly attracted much traffic, mostly from media practitioners and other liberal-minded Chinese. On Zhihu, China’s Quora-like question-and-answer platform, there was a post asking “How to make sense of all the online birthday wishes to Elder”.  Not long ago, a Weibo account named “Has Elder died Yet” was set up, which updated only one identical post per day: “No!”

Unsurprisingly, these accounts and posts were soon taken down by censors. But the sense of nostalgia and worship persists. Well-researched articles or videos depicting Jiang as a normal person with a human touch who speaks eight foreign languages and has emotional ups and downs are still widely shared on the Internet. One article featuring Jiang’s music talents, written by a Chinese cyber-essayist, was published on August 17, Jiang’s birthday, and has been viewed over one million times on Sina Weibo. One commentator said, “I am already in love with this artistic man.”

Underneath the nostalgia for Jiang, however, is not necessarily people’s genuine worship of Jiang or the approval of his hawkish ruling style but their disapproval of the current leader Xi Jinping. Education-wise, Xi spent little time in classroom for nearly a decade during the Cultural Revolution and later received education in the ideology-ridden Tsinghua University, which is said to have increased his belief that the “born red” —children of the party elite—earned the right to inherit the highest power and led to his authoritarian governance. Jiang, on the other hand, developed his love for music—be it Western or traditional Chinese one, mastered English and other foreign languages while at school. These more liberal education helped shape Jiang as a relatively flashy (in Chinese leader’s standard) but cosmopolitan and lively person who sang karaoke on state visits and recited the Gettysburg address to foreigners. In contrast, to many liberal-minded Chinese, the current Chines leader is a “chairman of everything” who lashed out at foreigners publicly, launched a harsh crackdown on the Internet, constituted the infamous Document 9, put activists behind bars, and introduced increasing censorship on academia. “The power has been centralizing since Xi Jinping took office. The rising neo-statism and aggressive foreign policy direction are all alarming to the liberal.” critiqued Zhang Boshu, a Chinese constitutionalism scholar.

The partly contrast explains why more and more common Internet users and even liberals identify themselves as “hasi”. Shi Feike, a veteran Chinese journalist, for example, concluded that “The nostalgia wave for ‘ha’ is a natural outcome of the comparison with ‘bun’. But actually, there is nothing to be nostalgic about. The trend in the past three decades has always been that each leader is less accomplished than his predecessor.”

Yet, it may be flimsy to jump to solid conclusions that the only reason Chinese people favourably  discuss Mr. Jiang is they are dissatisfied with their current leader.

“I think part of the group (referring to “hasi”) do that because they don’t like Xi. But others just genuinely find Jiang’s outgoing personalities adorable. At first, they joined the group just to mock him. But as they learned more about Jiang, they begin to genuinely like him.” said a China-based journalist.

In a WeChat conversation and later in a publicly-accessible WeChat post, the authors behind the WeChat account expressed that the reasons they started the account is solely based on their admiration for Mr. Jiang without any intention to criticize anyone. “We want to attract more followers and build a knowledge-sharing platform. At some point, we’ll have to move on and focus on more diverse topics.” said one of the authors.

Note: Sometimes earlier, “Seminar on the Selected Essays of Jiang” was shut down by censors because of a New York Times news report. At the request of the owner of the Wechat account mentioned in this article, the name of the account and links to the relevant articles are omitted.

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