Jiang Zemin, the Chinese communist leader who paved the way for the country’s emergence as a global superpower, has died, the official Xinhua news agency said on Wednesday. He was 96 years old.
The former leader of the ruling Communist Party and state president died of leukemia and related multi-organ failure in Shanghai on Wednesday. He is survived by his wife, two sons and two grandchildren.
After being shunned by the West after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, China – with Jiang as supreme leader – successfully reintegrated into the international community by regaining sovereignty over hong kongwinning the bid to host the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and, perhaps most importantly, joining the World Trade Organization.
“That was probably the main catalyst for big double-digit growth spurts 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 has been set, it is absolutely clear to me that it was set at that time and became irreversible towards the end of his tenure.”
Many observers, however, also consider Jiang’s rule to have 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 a continued emphasis on one-party rule instead of political reform.
Initially seen as a transitional figure, the relatively unknown Jiang was chosen in 1989 by then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping to lead the party after the bloody military repression of the nationwide pro-democracy movement that same year led to the ousting of Zhao Ziyang, the former party leader who sympathized with the protesters.
“Jiang was a contradictory figure and an accidental leader,” said Pin Ho, founder and CEO of Mirror Media Group, an influential New York-based Chinese-language publisher on China politics. “He admired and respected Western cultures – but he also had to live within the Chinese political system.”
“He wasn’t ready to become a thoughtful, visionary leader,” he added. “He just extended Deng’s reign by carrying out Deng’s policies.”
These policies focused on economic liberalization and globalization, which led to improved living standards as well as a growing wealth gap, while maintaining the party’s iron grip on political affairs, ideological and military in the most populous nation in the world.
A former party leader and mayor of Shanghai, China’s largest city, Jiang nonetheless proved to be a far savvier politician than many predicted, outmaneuvering a myriad of political rivals and consolidating the power of the party and the army within a few years, especially after Deng’s death. in 1997. Installing key allies and proteges throughout the party and government, he led the so-called “Shanghai Clique”, whose influence survived his tenure.
A telling sign of Jiang’s relative openness and flexibility, he welcomed private business owners – in effect capitalists – into the Communist Party with open arms. In 2001, a year before stepping down as leader, Jiang declared that the party would officially accept entrepreneurs as members, a significant move that reinvigorated the party and boosted China’s thriving private sector.
His reign was also marked by the government’s ruthless crackdown on the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that Beijing has labeled an evil cult. The group’s die-hard supporters had called for Jiang’s arrest for “crimes against humanity” around the world, often harassing the Chinese leader during his overseas visits.
Beginning in late 2002, Jiang handed over the titles to his successor, Hu Jintao, first as party leader, then as president. But he clung to his post as military leader until 2005 and, even after his official retirement, continued to exert political influence behind the scenes, including in the selection of the current Chinese leader Xi Jinping – who recently assumed an unprecedented third term, paving the way for him to rule for life.
Xi, the People’s Republic’s most powerful leader since its founder Mao Zedong, has gutted political rivals, including Jiang’s faction. It also reasserted the dominance of the ruling Communist Party in all aspects of Chinese society, rolling back much of the economic and personal freedoms seen in the days of Deng, Jiang, and Hu.
A unprecedented wave of protests against the country’s relentless “zero-Covid” policy has erupted across China in recent days, with some protesters in Shanghai calling on Xi to stand down. Given the history of people in China taking to the streets to mourn the deaths of former leaders while airing their grievances against incumbent governments, Jiang’s death comes at a particularly sensitive time.
Born in eastern China in 1926 and educated in pre-communist Shanghai, Jiang trained to be an electrical engineer. He reportedly joined the party while at university and studied in the former Soviet Union in the 1950s. Gradually rising through the party ranks, he became Minister of Electronics Industry in 1983 before being appointed mayor of Shanghai two years later.
Famous for wearing heavy black-rimmed glasses, Jiang was also known for his penchant for showing off his linguistic and artistic skills – reciting Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in English and singing “O Sole Mio” in Italian in front of foreign dignitaries.
“I think no matter the profession, if one can enjoy reading literature, listening to music, it can be very helpful to a person’s healthy growth,” Jiang told CNN in a statement. personal interview in May 1997.
Jiang’s flamboyant personality and cosmopolitan flair, though sometimes ridiculed during his reign, has earned him unexpected popularity online in recent years as Chinese social media users have grown in popularity. recall a relatively more relaxed political and social atmosphere under his direction.
Many often refer to his surprising decision in 1997 to approve the live broadcast on national television of a joint press 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 prominent American China researcher. “Compared to Hu and Xi, he was very talkative, open and friendly.”
“He was one of the few Chinese leaders who wanted to be a normal world leader, not a communist dictator.”