BEIJING (AP) — Jiang Zemin, who led China out of isolation after suppressing pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and championing economic reforms that led to a decade of explosive growth, died Wednesday. He was 96.
Jiang, who was president for a decade until 2003 and led the ruling Communist Party for 13 years until 2002, died in Shanghai of leukemia and multiple organ failure, state media reported.
His death came after the party faced its most extensive public display of opposition In decades, when crowds called on leader Xi Jinping to step down, protests over the weekend against the anti-virus that have confined millions of people to their homes.
A surprise choice to lead a divided Communist Party after the turmoil of 1989, Jiang has seen China through historic changes including the revival of market-oriented reforms, Hong Kong’s return from British rule in 1997 and Beijing’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 1989. 2001
Even as China opened up to the outside world, Jiang’s government suppressed opposition. The party imprisoned human rights, labor and pro-democracy activists and banned the spiritual movement Falun Gong, which the ruling party saw as a threat to its monopoly on power.
Jiang relinquished his last official title in 2004 but remained a force behind the scenes of the conflicts that led to Xi’s rise to power in 2012. Xi has intensified political control.crushed the little remaining Chinese opposition and reaffirmed the dominance of state industry.
Chinese state television devoted 48 minutes of its long nightly newscast to Jiang’s death. He was shown chatting with farmers, visiting factories and meeting foreign leaders.
The party declared him a “great proletarian revolutionary” and a “proven communist fighter”.
Kerry Brown, an expert on Chinese politics at King’s College London, said Jiang was responsible for China’s resurgence after 1989, reaching a global stage. “He will be remembered as someone who probably made a very positive contribution.”
Rumors that Jiang might be in poor health began after he missed the ruling party congress in October. As a leader
Jiang was about to retire as Shanghai Party Secretary in 1989 when he was invited by the then great leader Deng Xiaoping to rally the party and the nation. He succeeded Zhao Ziyang when Deng was removed from office for sympathizing with the Tiananmen protesters.
In 13 years as party general secretary, China’s most powerful post, Jiang rose to economic power by welcoming capitalists into the party and attracting foreign investment after China joined the WTO. China has become the second largest economy after the United States, overtaking Germany and then Japan.
Jiang won a political bonus when Beijing was chosen to host the 2008 Summer Olympics after losing an earlier bid.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called Jiang “a steadfast advocate for international engagement” and noted his “personal warmth and openness.” The UN Security Council celebrated his death with a minute of silence.
An owl with large glasses, Jiang was a jovial character who, unlike his more reserved successors Hu Jintao and Xi, played the piano and enjoyed singing.
If he stops speaking English, he speaks enthusiastically and recites the Gettysburg Address to foreign visitors. On a trip to Britain, he tried to get Queen Elizabeth II to sing karaoke.
A former soap factory manager, Jiang completed the first orderly succession in the Communist era, handing over his post as party leader to Hu in 2002, who took the ceremonial title of president the following year.
However, he is said to have been disappointed that he chose Deng Hu and prevented Jiang from installing his successor. Jiang tried to maintain his influence by staying on as head of the Central Military Commission, which controls the 2 million-strong People’s Liberation Army. He stepped down from the post in 2004 after complaints that may have divided the government.
After leaving the post, Jiang had influence over advertising through the network he sponsored. When Xi became leader in 2012, he was considered successful in promoting his allies to the party’s seven-member Standing Committee, China’s inner circle of power.
Jiang faded from view and was last seen alongside current and former leaders over Beijing’s Tiananmen Gate in a 2019 military parade celebrating his 70th anniversary in power.
Jiang was born on August 17, 1926 in the prosperous eastern city of Yangzhou. Official biographies downplay his family’s middle-class background, emphasizing instead his uncle and adoptive father, Jiang Shangqing, an early revolutionary who was killed in battle in 1939.
After graduating from the electrical machinery department of Jiaotong University in Shanghai in 1947, Jiang worked his way up through state-controlled industries, working in a food factory, then a soap factory, and China’s largest automobile factory.
Like many technocrat officials, Jiang spent part of the ultra-radical Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 as a farm worker. His career was then revived and in 1983 he was appointed Minister of Electronics Industry, then a key but lagging sector that the government hoped to revive by inviting foreign investment.
As mayor of Shanghai between 1985 and 1989, Jiang impressed foreign visitors as a representative of a new generation of outward-looking Chinese leaders.
A staunch political campaigner, Jiang dismissed predictions that his leadership would be short. He consolidated power with the military by promoting members of his “Shanghai Wing” and increasing military spending by double-digit percentages.
Foreign leaders and executives who avoided Beijing after the Tiananmen crackdown were persuaded to return home.
When Deng came out of retirement in 1992 to try to revive market-style reforms, so did Jiang.
He supported Premier Zhou Rongji, the party’s No. 3 leader, who made painful changes that cut some 40 million jobs from state-owned industries in the late 1990s.
Zhou initiated the privatization of urban housing and sparked a building boom that turned China’s cities into high-rise forests and fueled economic growth.
After 12 years of negotiations and Zhou fleeing to Washington to lobby the Clinton administration for support, China joined the WTO in 2001, cementing its position as a magnet for foreign investment.
China’s economic boom divided society into winners and losers as a wave of rural residents migrated to factory jobs in the cities, the economy expanded sevenfold, and urban incomes rose almost as much.
Protests, once rare, have spread as government jobs are lost and farmers complain about increased taxes and duties. Divorce rate increased, corruption flourished.
Despite his good public image, Jiang dealt aggressively with challenges to the ruling party’s power.
His highest goal was Falun Gong, a meditation group founded in the early 1990s. Chinese leaders were horrified by the country’s ability to recruit tens of thousands of followers, including military officers.
Activists who tried to form an opposition party to China’s democracy, an act permitted by Chinese law, were sentenced to 12 years in prison on charges of sabotage.
“Stability above all else,” Jiang ordered, in a phrase used by his successors to justify tight social controls.
On Hong Kong’s return on July 1, 1997, which marked the end of 150 years of European colonial rule, Jiang was handed the presidency, standing alongside Britain’s Prince Charles. The Portuguese territory of Macau near Portugal was returned to China in 1999.
Hong Kong was promised independence and became a springboard for mainland companies looking to do business overseas. Meanwhile, Jiang has sided with Taiwan, an island that Beijing says is part of its territory.
During Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in 1996, Jiang’s government tried to intimidate voters by firing missiles at nearby shipping lines. The United States responded by sending warships to the region as a sign of support.
At the same time, trade between the mainland and Taiwan grew to billions of dollars a year.
One of Jiang’s sons, Jiang Mianheng, sparked controversy as a telecom trader in the late 1990s when critics accused him of abusing his father’s position to advance his career, a common complaint against the children of party leaders.
Jiang is survived by two sons and his wife, Wang Yiping, who worked in state bureaucracies in charge of state-owned industries.
Associated Press writers Danica Kerka in London and Edith M. Lederer worked at the United Nations.