Jiang Zemin, China’s former president who helped stabilise the world’s most populous country in the decade after the Tiananmen Square massacre, has died aged 96.
Jiang, unmistakable in his thick-framed owlish glasses, served as general secretary of the ruling Chinese Communist party from 1989 to 2002.
In comparison with China’s current strongman ruler Xi Jinping, Jiang is remembered by some as a colourful and relatively liberal leader. Alongside Zhu Rongji, his premier, Jiang helped entrench the sweeping market-orientated reforms of Deng Xiaoping and placed China on firmer international footing.
His death, from leukaemia and multiple organ failure, was reported by Chinese state media on Wednesday.
Born in Yangzhou, a city in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, he was raised in a family of intellectuals with Communist party roots. A factory manager typical of a new cohort of technocrats favoured by Deng, Jiang was plucked from his role as party boss in Shanghai days before the Tiananmen Square massacre and anointed to replace Zhao Ziyang.
Despite being initially viewed as an unlikely candidate — potentially only a transitional leader — he led the party until 2002, overseeing radical changes including China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, allowing capitalists into the CCP and reforms of the archaic banking and state-owned sectors.
David Shambaugh, in his 2021 book China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now, noted that he was first viewed as an ornamental “flowerpot” with little practical purpose.
“The initial foreign impressions of Jiang were that he was a dull, classic bureaucrat-apparatchik, lacking in intelligence and persona . . . As time passed and Jiang emerged on the world stage, it became quickly apparent that he was the very opposite of those descriptors,” Shambaugh wrote.
“When compared with Xi Jinping’s hardline repression today, or Hu Jintao’s relatively limited impact, we look back wistfully on Jiang Zemin’s rule as relatively liberal and tolerant politically, socially and economically.”
In 1995, Jiang played a central role in a tense military stand-off with Bill Clinton after launching missiles into waters near Taiwan in response to Taiwan’s then president Lee Teng-hui touring the US. Four years later, he also navigated a torrent of anti-Americanism in China after Nato forces bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
A political pragmatist, Jiang was instrumental in formalising the two-term limit for China’s leaders after the chaotic final years of Mao Zedong’s rule.
However, he personally wavered, staying on for an additional two years as chair of the party’s central military commission. Following his formal exit from official positions of power, Jiang continued to wield influence for nearly two decades in the top echelons of Chinese politics through a large faction of confidants and loyalists, undermining successor Hu Jintao’s rule.
Until Xi cemented control of the party, Jiang’s “Shanghai clique” for years enjoyed a majority on the party’s politburo standing committee, the state’s highest decision-making group. In recent years, however, Jiang’s influence waned as Xi positioned himself for lifetime dominance over the 100mn-member party.
Last month, China’s 69-year-old leader shattered the two-term limit and embarked on an unprecedented third term, surrounded by party cadres with little connection to Jiang’s network.