A wide cross-section of Chinese society, from the ruling Communist Party’s leaders to scholars and activists pushing for political change, has mourned the passing of Nelson Mandela, an event which has triggered debate – and difficult questions – in China about the sensitive issue of political transitions and the role of dissidents in effecting change under authoritarian rule.

“Where is China’s Mandela” was, briefly, among the most discussed topics on a popular Twitter-like microblogging website, Tencent Weibo, before the thread appeared to be removed.

On Saturday morning, tributes, in the form of wreaths and bouquets, continued to come in outside the South African Embassy in Beijing. A young man in his twenties laid a bouquet in front of a banner of Mandela placed in front of the Embassy building, as he bowed three times to show his respect.

Chinese leaders and State media mourned the loss of “a world renowned statesman”. President Xi Jinping said he expressed “deep grief” as he saluted Mandela for his “arduous struggles to anti-apartheid victory”.

The Chinese people, he said, would “always remember Mandela’s extraordinary contributions” to both “the cause of human progress” and to South Africa’s ties with China, where Mandela visited twice. The Foreign Ministry described Mandela as “an old friend” of the Chinese people.

Qiao Mu, an outspoken academic and professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, who has been an advocate for faster political reforms, said he was struck by the outpouring of messages condoling Mandela’s death across the spectrum of Chinese society.

“In China, when a foreign leader dies, usually there are different reactions from officials and ordinary people,” he said, citing the example of the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who was, also, hailed by the government as “an old friend”, even if there were less warm responses outside official circles. “But today,” he said, “when Mandela died, the whole country mourned for him”.

For him, the three striking aspects of Mandela’s political legacy were the transitions from “violent revolution to peaceful resistance”; from imprisonment to reconciliation; and from the office of President, which he gave up after one term “without reluctance”, to that of a citizen.

“Are the three transitions,” he asked, “meaningful for us to look back into the past, and look forward to future transformations?”

By Friday evening, there were more than 4.4 lakh messages about Mandela on another Twitter-like website, Sina Weibo.

“Mandela’s braveness not only lies in his fighting, but also lies in his forgiveness,” wrote a blogger who uses the name Hanshuai0524. “South Africa is so lucky to have such a father of a nation”.

A few others wondered “if China’s Mandelas” – perhaps referring to activists and dissidents pushing for political change, such as the jailed writer and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo – were, like the great South African leader once was, being held in prison.

“It is not that we don't have a Chinese Mendela, it is just that they are all in prison,” wrote Ziwenfengyang, adding, in reference to apartheid-era South Africa’s last president who took the decision to release Mandela from prison and enable political change, “What we need is a de Klerk”.

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