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BEIJING – Chinese President Xi Jinping was at the podium giving a three-and-a-half hour speech to outline his grand vision for a "new era" of China. But for young Chinese cracking jokes on social media, all eyes were on their 91-year-old cult favorite struggling to stay awake in the front row.
Jiang Zemin is dozing off. Jiang Zemin is using a magnifying glass the size of his head to read. Jiang Zemin is checking his watch for the umpteenth time — and Xi's barely halfway into his speech.
China's internet flared up again on Wednesday with largely affectionate jokes about Jiang, the long-retired party leader who has stuck around and haunted Chinese politics despite perennial rumors of his demise. Some users noted how Jiang looked "younger and younger" as he emerged for Xi's speech in Beijing's Great Hall of the People.
Jiang came to power in 1989 after the military's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. He's known for overseeing a four-fold expansion of the economy in the 1990s while reining-in civil liberties, including imposing a crackdown on followers of the Falun Gong, an outlawed spiritual movement.
His human rights record doesn't seem to bother his young fans, who point instead to his frequent stunts — reciting the Gettysburg Address in a 60 Minutes interview or floating in the Dead Sea during a Middle East visit with spandex shorts clinging to his pot belly — as evidence of an unscripted political legend.
Today he's the closest thing there is to a living, breathing Communist Party internet meme. His fans call him "frog" — because of his grin and signature, oversized glasses — and label themselves "frog worshippers" or "frog fans."
Others wryly call him "elder," a reference to his famous 2000 diatribe in which he tried to scold a young Hong Kong reporter by referring to her as "too young," ''too simple, sometimes naive" in English. When he turned 90 last year, the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat was filled with well wishes from millennials who were in third grade when Jiang left power.
The fascination with Jiang has unsettled authorities, even if it's unclear whether the sentiment is sardonic or earnest. Jiang's name is often censored in internet searches, and even pictures of frogs are sometimes deleted. The former party chief has also been rumored to clash heavily with Xi behind the scenes over his lingering influence.
Authorities removed one blog post that said it was reassuring that Jiang "looks so healthy" on Wednesday, while searches of his name did not return results on Weibo and popular online forums.