Jiang Zemin, the Chinese communist leader who paved the way for the country’s rise as a global superpower, has died, state news agency Xinhua announced Wednesday. He turned 96.
The former leader of the ruling Communist Party and state president died in Shanghai on Wednesday of leukemia and associated multiple organ failure. 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 its top leader – has successfully reintegrated into the international community by regaining sovereignty over Hong Kong, winning the candidacy to Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and, perhaps most importantly, join the World Trade Organization.
“That was probably the main catalyst for the big 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 is absolutely clear to me that it came about at that time and by the end of his tenure it became irreversible.”
However, many observers also see Jiang’s rule as having sown the seeds of widespread corruption, which remains a lightning rod for mass discontent to this day. He praised the benefit of “everyone who quietly makes a fortune” amid the continued emphasis on one-party rule rather than political reform.
Initially considered a transitional figure, the relatively unknown Jiang was selected in 1989 by then-leader Deng Xiaoping to lead the party after the bloody military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement led to the ousting of Zhao Ziyang, the former party leader, that same year sympathizes with 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 about 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-out and visionary leader,” he added. “He only expanded Deng’s rule by carrying out Deng’s policies.”
Those policies focused on economic liberalization and globalization, leading to an improvement in living standards and a widening wealth gap, while the party maintained its iron grip on political, ideological and military affairs in the world’s most populous nation.
Jiang, a former party chief and mayor of Shanghai, China’s largest city, nevertheless turned out to be a much smarter politician than many had predicted. in 1997. He installed key allies and protégés in the party and government and led the so-called ‘Shanghai clique’, whose influence exceeded his tenure.
In a telling sign of Jiang’s relative openness and flexibility, he welcomed private entrepreneurs—in fact, capitalists—to the Communist Party with open arms. In 2001, a year before he stepped down as leader, Jiang stated that the party would formally accept entrepreneurs as members, a major move that revived 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 labeled an evil cult. The group’s hardcore followers had sought Jiang’s arrest for “crimes against humanity” around the world, often pursuing the Chinese leader during his overseas visits.
Beginning in late 2002, Jiang handed over titles to his successor, Hu Jintao, first as party boss and then as president. But he clung to his senior military post until 2005 and, even after his official retirement, continued to wield political influence behind the scenes, including in the selection of China’s current leader Xi Jinping – who recently took on a precedent-breaking third term in office. the way for him to rule for life.
Xi, the most powerful leader of the People’s Republic since its founder Mao Zedong, has wiped out political rivals, including Jiang’s faction. He has also reaffirmed the dominance of the ruling Communist Party in every aspect of Chinese society, reversing many of the economic and personal freedoms of the times of Deng, Jiang and Hu.
An unprecedented wave of protests against the country’s relentless “zero Covid” policy erupted across China in recent days, with some protesters in Shanghai calling for Xi to resign. Given the history of people in China taking to the streets to mourn the deaths of previous leaders while voicing their grievances against incumbent governments, Jiang’s death comes at a particularly sensitive time.
Born in East China in 1926 and educated in pre-communist Shanghai, Jiang was trained as an electrical engineer. He reportedly joined the party while studying and studying in the former Soviet Union in the 1950s. He gradually rose through the party ranks, becoming minister of electronics industry in 1983 before being named mayor of Shanghai two years later.
Jiang was famous for wearing heavy black-rimmed glasses, but was also known for his penchant for displaying his language and artistic skills – reciting Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in English and singing “O Sole Mio” in Italian for foreign dignitaries.
“I feel that regardless of one’s profession, if one can enjoy reading some literature, enjoy some music, that can be very helpful to the person’s healthy growth,” Jiang told CNN in a May 1997 -on-an-interview. .
Jiang’s flamboyant persona and cosmopolitan flair, though sometimes ridiculed during his reign, earned him unexpected online popularity in recent years as Chinese social media users increasingly reminisce about a relatively more relaxed political and social atmosphere under his leadership.
Many often point to his surprise decision in 1997 to approve the live broadcast on national television of a joint press conference with Bill Clinton in 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 in his lifetime,” said Orville Schell, a leading US scientist on China. “Compared to Hu and Xi, he was very eloquent and open and friendly.”
“He was one of the few Chinese leaders who wanted to be a normal world leader, not a communist dictator.”