Jiang Zemin, the Chinese communist leader who paved the way for the country’s emergence as a global superpower, has died, state-run Xinhua news agency announced Wednesday. He was 96.
The former chief of the ruling Communist Party and state president died of leukemia and associated multiple organ failure on Wednesday in Shanghai. He is survived by his wife, two sons and two grandchildren.
Jiang’s death comes at a particularly sensitive time in China. An unprecedented wave of protests against the country’s unrelenting “zero-Covid” policy erupted across China in recent days, with some demonstrators in Shanghai calling on current leader Xi Jinping to step down. China has a history of people taking to the streets to mourn the deaths of previous leaders, while airing their grievances against incumbent governments.
Jiang is often credited for successfully integrating China into the international community after the nation was shunned by the West following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
With him as its top leader, China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong, won the bid to host the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and, perhaps most importantly, joined the World Trade Organization.
“That was probably the key catalyst to the great growth spurts of double-digit growth for a decade or more – because of that integration,” said Robert Lawrence Kuhn, author of a 2005 biography, “The Man Who Changed China: The Life and Legacy of Jiang Zemin.”
“In terms of the economic trajectory that was set, it’s absolutely clear to me it was established during that time, and it became irreversible towards the end of his term to hold office.”
Many observers, though, also see Jiang’s reign as having sown the seeds of widespread corruption, which remains a lightning rod for massive discontent to this day. He touted the benefit of “everyone making a fortune quietly” amid continued emphasis on one-party rule instead of political reform.
Initially considered a transitional figure, the relatively unknown Jiang was handpicked in 1989 by then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to head the party after the bloody military suppression of the pro-democracy movement nationwide that same year led to the ouster of Zhao Ziyang, the previous party chief sympathetic to the protesters.
“Jiang was a contradictory figure and accidental leader,” said Pin Ho, founder and CEO of the Mirror Media Group, an influential New York-based Chinese-language publisher of books and websites on Chinese politics. “He admired and respected Western cultures – but he also had to live within the Chinese political system.”
“He was not prepared to become a well-thought and visionary leader,” he added. “He merely extended Deng’s rule by executing Deng’s policies.”
Those policies focused on economic liberalization and globalization, which led to improving standards of living as well as a widening wealth gap, while maintaining the party’s iron grip over political, ideological and military affairs in the world’s most populous nation.
A former party chief and mayor of Shanghai, China’s largest city, Jiang nevertheless proved to be a much shrewder politician than many had predicted, outmaneuvering a myriad of political rivals and consolidating power in the party and military in a few years, especially after Deng’s death in 1997. Installing key allies and protégés throughout the party and government, he headed the so-called “Shanghai clique,” whose influence outlasted his time in office.
In a telling sign of Jiang’s relative openness and flexibility, he welcomed private business owners – effectively capitalists – into the Communist Party with open arms. In 2001, a year before he stepped down as leader, Jiang declared the party would formally accept entrepreneurs as its members, a significant move that reinvigorated the party and boosted China’s thriving private sector.
His rule was also marked by the government’s ruthless crackdown on the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that Beijing branded an evil cult. The group’s hardcore followers had sought Jiang’s arrest for “crimes against humanity” around the world, often dogging the Chinese leader during his overseas visits.
Starting in late 2002, Jiang handed over titles to his successor, Hu Jintao, first as the party boss and then as president. But he clung to his military chief post until 2005 and, even after his official retirement, continued to exert political influence from behind the scenes, including over the leadership selection of Xi – who recently assumed a precedent-breaking third term, paving the way for him to rule for life.
Xi, the most powerful leader of the People’s Republic since its founder Mao Zedong, has eviscerated political rivals that included Jiang’s faction. He has also reasserted the ruling Communist Party’s dominance in every aspect of Chinese society, rolling back much of the economic and personal freedoms seen in the days of Deng, Jiang and Hu.
Born in eastern China in 1926 and educated in pre-communist Shanghai, Jiang was trained to be an electrical engineer. He reportedly joined the party while in college and studied in the former Soviet Union in the 1950s. Rising gradually through the party ranks, he became the minister of electronics industry in 1983 before being named the mayor of Shanghai two years later.
Famous for wearing heavy, black-rimmed glasses, Jiang also was known for his fondness for showing off his language and artistic skills – reciting Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in English and singing “O Sole Mio” in Italian in front of foreign dignitaries.
“I feel that no matter what one’s profession, if one can enjoy reading some literature, enjoy some music, that can be very helpful to the healthy growth of the person,” Jiang told CNN in a one-on-one interview in May 1997 .
Jiang’s flamboyant personality and cosmopolitan flair, while sometimes ridiculed during his rule, brought him unexpected online popularity in recent years as Chinese social media users increasingly reminisce about a comparatively more relaxed political and social atmosphere under his leadership.
Many often point to his surprising decision in 1997 to approve the live broadcast on national television of a joint news conference with Bill Clinton, during which he engaged in a heated debate with the visiting US President on the issue of human rights in China.
“I think he was underestimated during his lifetime,” said Orville Schell, a leading US scholar on China. “Compared to Hu and Xi, he was very voluble and open and friendly.”
“He was one of the few Chinese leaders who wanted to be a normal world leader, not a communist dictator.”