Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin dies at 96

Jiang Zemin, the unlikely former leader who guided China through groundbreaking economic reforms and served as a bridge between the strongman era and a more consensual government, has died. He was 96.

Chinese state television reported on Jiang’s death on Wednesday, saying the former leader died in Shanghai, a city he once ruled as mayor.

The announcement ends regular speculation as to whether the ailing party elder, who served as leader of the country’s Communist Party from 1989 to 2002 and president from 1993 to 2003, has died.

The death of a member of the ruling party’s elite is traditionally a highly sensitive event that has even sparked deadly demonstrations, such as the 1989 death of reformer Hu Yaobang. But Jiang’s death is nowhere near as politically sensitive as that of his two predecessors – Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping – a reality that reflects both China’s relative stability today and the mixed legacy Jiang leaves behind.

Nonetheless, Jiang continued to wield power behind the scenes until the last years of his life. President Xi Jinping was a protégé of Jiang, and the strong presence of Jiang’s allies in the Politburo Standing Committee helped Xi pursue a tough anti-corruption campaign and quickly consolidate power after he rose to the top of the party in 2013.

Jiang, the first head of the Chinese Communist Party without a military background, never achieved the revolutionary cult of personality attributed to Mao, but nevertheless formed the core of Communist China’s third generation of leaders.

Jiang was born on August 17, 1926 in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, and graduated from an American missionary school. He could recite the Gettysburg Address from memory and often did so in interviews. He told bad jokes, wrote poetry and played the piano on national television.

With his high-waisted pants, owl-rimmed glasses, and penchant for bursting into song (he once sang “O Sole Mio” with the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti), Jiang didn’t have an aura of seriousness that most Chinese expect from their leaders had .

He was nicknamed “Flower Pot,” a criticism for looking nice but not doing much. He was nicknamed the “Weathervane” because he had an expert knowledge of which direction the political winds were blowing. He was also accused of having too much of a crush on foreign cultures and being quick to show off his English.

Jiang’s unlikely rise to the nation’s top post was fueled by a mixture of political acumen and good timing after serving as mayor and party leader of Shanghai.

He found a political backer in Deng, who chose Jiang to be the party’s general secretary after the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. It was a period of chaos that brought the party to the brink of collapse. Jiang’s relative obscurity, free from any ties to Beijing, was seen as an advantage.

“Jiang was the least liked candidate of all the other possible candidates,” said Kerry Brown, an expert on the Chinese Communist Party and professor of Chinese studies at King’s College London. “Beyond that, there were no expectations of him, and in his early years in power he lived in the shadow of the great supreme leader Deng.”

Yet Jiang would preside over some of China’s key economic milestones, including efforts to downsize and restructure parts of the country’s vast and wasteful state sector, the military’s withdrawal from private enterprise, and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, four years after Deng’s death.

Jiang’s contribution to party doctrine was titled “The Three Representatives,” a clunky and sometimes derided document that nonetheless gave entrepreneurs greater political prominence at a time when China desperately needed private-sector jobs.

In fact, Jiang’s endorsement of financial reform was a continuation of Deng’s social contract with the Chinese people: to accept party rule in exchange for getting rich.

But beneficial as this was for many, it also accelerated the country’s staggering environmental degradation, opened the floodgates to corruption and widened the gap between rich and poor.

“The tax reforms he has overseen have dramatically improved the central government’s control over tax revenues, thereby laying the foundation for various social policy programs,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “Others would accuse these policies of weakening local authorities and creating all sorts of side effects, including land grabs by local authorities, which have brought state-society relations to boiling point in many communities.”

The Party’s grip on power also tightened under Jiang, when the authorities brutally silenced dissent by jailing or executing democracy activists. A violent campaign against the banned spiritual group known as Falun Gong remains one of the blackest blots on Jiang in the eyes of human rights defenders.

Jiang’s tenure included the return of Hong Kong and Macao to Chinese sovereignty from British and Portuguese control, respectively.

When it came time to hand over leadership to Hu Jintao in 2002, Jiang had the distinction of being the first Chinese communist leader to bow to an orderly transfer of power that did not involve death, purges, or bloodshed.

Jin Zhong, a veteran political analyst based in Hong Kong, said Xi – China’s most powerful leader in decades – took over the presidency in 2013 with such a strong sense of heritage and destiny that Jiang now seems to pale in comparison. He hinted that Jiang’s legacy is likely to be muted, comparing him to Leonid Brezhnev, who after Nikita Khrushchev led the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982.

“Jiang then took office [the Tiananmen crackdown] and was the biggest beneficiary of this event,” Jin said. “After that he tried to strengthen one-party rule. Although he continued the policy of economic opening and reform and growth, political opening and reform declined.”

Jiang is survived by his wife, Wang Yeping; two sons, Jiang Mianheng and Jiang Miankang; and a grandson, Jiang Zhicheng, also known as Alvin Jiang.

Julie Makinen contributed to this report. Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin dies at 96

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