The word “toad” has in recent times in China come to be loaded with much more meaning than a humble green amphibian.
Instead, online it is now synonymous with the former leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Jiang Zemin—initially perhaps because of what Chinese Internet users see as his toad-like appearance, and later because it is one way to refer to Jiang without getting blocked online. (Though later the word “toad” itself became politically sensitive.)
This association was the first that sprung to mind for many Chinese when it was announced that China Central Television, the state-run national broadcaster, would be producing a comedy called “Biggest Toad in the Puddle,” or simply “Boiled Golden Toad” when translated literally.
Director Ho Wi Ding was said to be courageous and foresighted for showing up such a formerly powerful political figure at this time in China, Chinese Internet users said.
Even though the theme of the film seems to have nothing to do with politics or Jiang Zemin, and there is nothing even suggesting that the title was a deliberate jab at Jiang by either the director or the broadcaster, the association was the talk of the town online.
“It seems that ‘Boiled Golden Toad’ is an innuendo for some leader’s downfall,” the Shanghai netizen “Bensande Liutongxue” remarked on Sina Weibo.
The Party mouthpiece People’s Daily announced in a Sept. 4 news report that Boiled Golden Toad would be shown on CCTV’s movie channel. It said the production had a “strong creative team,” and noted that the film, characterized as a “light, rural comedy,” was nominated for the 17th Shanghai International Film Festival this year.
It was jointly produced by the state-run Chengde Radio and Television Station, Longhua County government in Hebei Province, and Beijing Yatian Shengshi Entertainment Co., Ltd.
The comedy tells the story of “Toad Village,” where a villager discovers a lucrative hotspring, and the whole town then attempts to profit from the discovery. High jinks ensue.
Such an apparently apolitical film has now been marked with indelible political associations, as netizens share their excitement at what they take to be the public lampooning of a much loathed former leader.
Jiang Zemin is highly unpopular among the public because of his well-known roles in pushing forward two of the most brutal political campaigns in post-Mao Party history.
During the June 4 student movement in 1989, Jiang lashed out harshly against pro-democratic ideas in Shanghai, and shuttered the popular, early liberal newspaper World Economic Herald. His tough stance in Shanghai is thought to be part of the reason he was brought in, albeit reluctantly, to the central leadership by Deng Xiaoping, the Party patriarch at the time.
Jiang then led the Communist Party from 1989 until, officially, 2002, though for almost the next decade after officially retiring he retained a level of strong political influence that many observers say Xi Jinping, the current leader, is only recently freeing himself of.
A decade later, in 1999, Jiang launched a brutal persecution against Falun Gong, a traditional spiritual and meditation practice that had attracted at least 70 million adherents. Jiang wrote a letter to the Politburo declaring that Marxism and the Communist Party would triumph over Falun Gong’s spiritual tenets. Falun Gong websites report that close to 4,000 practitioners are confirmed of having been tortured to death, while researchers indicate that tens of thousands may have fallen victim to state-sponsored organ harvesting.
Because Jiang’s faction fears being held accountable for the crimes committed in the persecution of Falun Gong, it has persisted in trying to regain power. According to analysts, this has forced current Party leader Xi Jinping to launch a spate of purges, including in the military, security, petroleum, energy, and other sectors.
Most recently, the investigation of Zhou Yongkang, former head of the Communist Party’s security forces, and a political protege of Jiang Zemin, was formally announced on July 29. This brought intense speculation about the potential downfall of Jiang himself.
Observers note that: Many of Jiang’s closest supporters have been purged; he and those close to him have been left out of official events; and state propaganda has repeatedly trumpeted how the era of “retired cadre politics” is at an end.
Whenever discussion online turns to Jiang, Chinese social media users often turn to the “toad” meme to refer to and mock him. The word was at some point blocked on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, but on the site freeweibo.com, a website which scrapes deleted posts from Sina Weibo, the words “Jiang Zemin” and “toad” have been among the most popular in the past several days.
There has been no shortage of Jiang grist for China’s online discussion mill. On Aug. 30, Japanese media Kyoto Shimbun cited insider sources saying that Jiang was in hospital for an emergency health problem.
Shortly afterwards, the Chinese state-run Yangcheng Evening News published an article about antibiotic imports, featuring a large image of a toad, apparently near death, a bandage over its head, hanging under five intravenous drips.
Neither toads nor IV drips had anything to do with the story. Many Chinese political watchers drew the conclusion that the newspaper was taking an open jab at Jiang Zemin’s current political predicament.
Prior to that, in July, a large inflated golden toad floating on a lake in Yuyuantan Park in Beijing was also highlighted online for its alleged resemblance to Jiang. When it was reported days later that the toad had deflated due to leaks, a widely passed around comment online said “Jiang’s in trouble.”
“Yuanfang Shiping,” an Internet user in China, summed up the general resentment felt by many Chinese against Jiang, the cause of much of the mocking. “It’s not the most important whether he’s truly dead or not,” Yuanfang wrote. “The most important thing is that people all wish for his death! … Living like that, being condemned by all, is more horrible than death.”