Shortly after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, the Hong Kong band Beyond penned a popular musical tribute to the man who helped bring down apartheid.
“He held tight to freedom in the wind and the rain and never stopped struggling with uncertainty,” they sang.
The song became an anthem for local activists and last Friday morning, when the news emerged that South Africa’s first black president had died, many Chinese discussed its lyrics once more.
Mandela’s achievements also came in for comment. “He believed the future could be changed,” was a line from the song frequently quoted in internet chatrooms.
But for the Chinese authorities, discussing Mandela’s struggle has always been rather awkward.
On the one hand, he was an icon of the fight against ‘imperialism’ – a struggle that the Chinese Communist Party has claimed as one of its own.
On the other hand, Mandela’s belief in universal human rights, democracy and reconciliation doesn’t always chime with values espoused by China’s leaders today.
As result, the official reaction to his death was cautious.
The line taken was that Mandela was an “old friend” who had played “a pivotal role in the creation of the new South Africa and the development of human civilisation”.
Few media outlets made any mention of Mandela’s commitment to democracy and many devoted large swathes of their tributes to how former Chinese leaders such as Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai were said to have inspired the former African National Congess leader in his struggle with apartheid.
China’s current president and premier were especially careful in conveying their own condolences, focusing on Mandela’s role in the decision to re-establish diplomatic ties with China – to the detriment of Taiwan – in 1998.
“Mr Mandela is one of the founders of China-South Africa relations. He visited China twice in his lifetime and was committed to advancing China-South Africa friendly cooperation in different areas. The Chinese people will always remember his exceptional contributions to the development of China-South Africa relations and the progress of mankind,” Xi Jinping wrote in a letter to Jacob Zuma, the current South African president.
Neither Xi nor Premier Li Keqiang attended the 95,000-strong memorial service for Mandela in Johannesburg on Tuesday, making China one of the few major powers not to send one of its leading politicians or head of state. The Russians didn’t send a representative either.
“Obviously, various types of leaders would be reluctant to honour a leader who both emerged from prison, had tremendous national popularity, and was able to transcend traditional politics and create a new beginning for a state,” was the opinion of Will Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Wilson Centre, who spoke to Bloomberg.
Other analysts pointed out that the timing wasn’t good for an unscheduled trip to South Africa: China is holding a key economic planning session this week.
Instead China sent the vice president Li Yuanchao – which annoyed some netizens.
“We say Mandela is an old friend but we don’t behave like it,” said one weibo user.
Another even objected to the use of ‘old friend’. “That is the term we use for North Korean leaders; please don’t tar Mandela with the same brush,” he pleaded.
Some netizens needed a little guidance on what Mandela looked like – some weibo users posted pictures of the actor Morgan Freedman accompanied with the words RIP – but, that said, most were broadly aware of the ideals he stood for.
His death also sparked a debate on ‘what would happen if Mandela had been born in China’.
“He would just disappear,” said one, while another suggested he would “get beaten to death in jail”. Others hinted that there were Chinese dissidents who were worthy of comparison to Mandela but who currently languish largely unremarked in prison.
Others made the point that Mandela’s achievements were inextricably linked to those of FW de Klerk, the last white president of South Africa, who freed him and brought apartheid to an end.
“We don’t need a Chinese Mandela,” wrote one netizen “We need a de Klerk.”
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