Jiang Zemin led China through an era of astonishing change after coming to power in the traumatic aftermath of the crackdown on Tiananmen Square.
State news agency Xinhua reported that he died on Wednesday at the age of 96.
Jiang rose from a factory engineer to leader of the world’s most populous nation, leading China to emerge as the global business, military and political power it is today.
When he took office in 1989, China was still in the early stages of economic modernization and an international pariah thanks to its crackdown on the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement.
But by the time Jiang retired as president in 2003, China was a member of the World Trade Organization, Britain had handed over Hong Kong, Beijing had secured the 2008 Olympics, and the country was on its way to superpower status. was.
Analysts say Jiang and his “Shanghai Gang” faction continued to exert influence over communist politics, including the selection of Xi Jinping as president in 2012.
However, his power was believed to have waned as Shi’s influence increased.
Xi has become China’s most powerful political figure since Mao Zedong, having recently secured a benchmark-breaking third term as leader of the Communist Party.
An electrical engineer by training who spent his early career in factories, Jiang lacked the revolutionary credentials and prestige of his predecessor, Deng Xiaoping, who tapped him to lead a new generation of leaders.
Seen by many as a transitional figure, Jiang was politically hindered by the Tiananmen aftermath.
But after Deng’s tour of the flourishing southern provinces in 1992, Jiang proved to be a keen champion of his patron’s “reform and opening-up” to lift China’s people out of poverty.
Jiang said in 1997, “Without first addressing the (economic survival) problem, it would be difficult to get any other rights.”
State control over the economy was further loosened by his chief, Zhu Rongji, and foreign relations—particularly with the United States—improved significantly.
Jiang said of Sino-US relations in 2001, “It takes two hands to clap.”
– bizarre image –
Jiang was the leader of the so-called “third generation” of Chinese communist leaders, a more technical and professional ruling elite following the early revolutionaries.
To foreign eyes, the generational change was enormous.
Jiang broke stereotypes of the stern Communist leader – with his wide grin, oversized glasses, understanding of several languages, and sometimes clownish demeanor – including making jokes in English.
A music lover who played the piano, Jiang was known to sing on foreign visits, including a memorable rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” during a state visit to the Philippines.
Yet his legacy as a leader is mixed and his detractors are numerous.
Jiang was criticized for failing to address new problems created by China’s economic rebirth: rampant corruption and inequality, environmental degradation, and state sector reform, which led to mass layoffs.
Rights campaigners denounced political activists and their suppression of the spiritual sect, Falun Gong. Many resented him as a cynical technocrat who vainly tried to equate his legacy with that of Mao and Deng.
Brushing off foreign criticism over China’s human rights record, Jiang once equated democratic development to Einstein’s “principle of relativity”, insisting the country would move forward at its own pace.
However, others felt that he was too concerned with the West.
Nepotism in the top ranks also became a sore point. He was accused of using his name to advance his own sons, Jiang Mianheng is believed to have controlled major companies, and Jiang Mianheng was reportedly a top general.
– military general –
A native of eastern Jiangsu province, Jiang was born in 1926 to a relatively wealthy family and raised under Japanese wartime occupation.
After participating in underground student movements, he joined the Communist Party in 1946, before training as an engineer in Moscow and later working in state-owned industry to distinguish himself.
With the help of powerful patrons, Jiang became mayor of Shanghai in 1985 and later its Communist Party chief, placing him in the party’s national inner circle.
In 1989, during a major crackdown at the top over the handling of Tiananmen and China’s economic course, Deng tapped the non-controversial Jiang over other high-ranking candidates to run the party, while Deng remained the paramount leader.
Jiang was praised for peacefully ending the Tiananmen-inspired protests in Shanghai, and received other important titles, including military chief.
– ‘Toad Worshiper’ –
Jiang was succeeded by Hu Jintao in 2002, but he held on to the remnants of power until 2004, when he finally left his position as chief of staff of China’s military.
His behind-the-scenes influence affected Hu’s presidency, limiting his power to undertake bold political reform.
In recent years, Jiang had become an unexpected viral meme among millennial and Gen Z Chinese fans, who call themselves “toad worshipers” for their frog-like faces and bizarre behavior.
During the marathon three-hour speech given by Xi at the 2017 Communist Party Congress, Internet users rejoiced when Jiang apparently blinked and checked his watch several times, or inspected documents with a large magnifying glass. Happened.
Jiang did not attend the opening or closing ceremonies of last month’s party congress – where Xi was appointed for a third term as party leader – sparking concerns over possible ill health.
Jiang is survived by his wife, Wang Yeping, and two sons.