Ex-China leader Jiang Zemin, who oversaw economic boom and political repression, dies aged 96

Chinese President Jiang Zemin at a press conference in Beijing, one day before his departure for an eight-day visit to the US, October 25, 1997. (Photo: AP/Greg Baker/File)

Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who led his country out of isolation following the brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square and supported economic reforms that led to a decade of explosive growth, passed away on Wednesday, according to state television. He was 96.

Jiang passed away in Shanghai, according to the website of state television.

Jiang, a surprise choice to lead a fractured Communist Party after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, oversaw China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, a revival of market-oriented reforms, and the return of Hong Kong from British rule.

Even as China opened up to the world, Jiang's government suppressed domestic dissent. It imprisoned human rights, labor, and pro-democracy activists and outlawed the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which it perceived as a threat to the Communist Party's power monopoly.

Jiang, the president from 1993 to 2003, gave up his last official title in 2004 but remained a force behind the scenes in the wrangling that led to the 2012 ascension of the current president, Xi Jinping. Xi has maintained Jiang's combination of economic liberalization and stringent political control.

In 2000, Jiang visited Israel as president and told then-president Ezer Weitzmann that both the Chinese and Jewish nations "have made outstanding contributions to the advancement of human civilization."

During his visit, he toured the West Bank and met with Yasser Arafat, the then-president of the Palestinian Authority.

Jiang was drafted on the verge of retirement with a mandate from then-prime minister Deng Xiaoping to unite the nation and the party.

However, he was transformative. In his 13 years as Communist Party general secretary, the highest position in China, he oversaw China's rise to global economic dominance by inviting capitalists to join the Communist Party and attracting foreign investment after China joined the WTO.

He presided over the nation's rise as a global manufacturer, the return of Hong Kong and Macao from Britain and Portugal, and the realization of a long-cherished dream: winning the competition to host the Olympic Games after being rejected previously.

Former manager of a soap factory, Jiang capped his career with the first orderly succession of the communist era, handing over his position as party leader in 2002 to Hu Jintao, who became president the following year.

Jiang attempted to retain power through the remaining chairman of the Central Military Commission, which controls the party's 2.3 million-strong People's Liberation Army. In 2004, he resigned as a result of concerns that he would divide the government.

Jiang's network of protégés gave him influence over promotions even after he left office.

According to reports, he was frustrated that Deng had chosen Hu as the next leader, preventing Jiang from installing his successor. When Xi became a leader in 2012, Jiang was deemed successful in elevating allies to the party's seven-member Standing Committee, China's inner circle of power.

In contrast to his more reserved successors, Hu and Xi, Jiang was a pleasant individual who enjoyed playing the piano and singing.

He would recite the Gettysburg Address to foreign visitors in his enthusiastic but stuttering English. During his visit to the United Kingdom, he attempted to convince Queen Elizabeth II to sing karaoke.

Jiang had disappeared from public view and last appeared alongside current and former leaders atop Beijing's Tiananmen gate in 2019 during a military parade commemorating the party's 70th anniversary in power. Last month, he was absent from a major party congress where seats are awarded to former leaders in recognition of their service.

Jiang was born in the prosperous eastern city of Yangzhou on August 17, 1926. Official biographies minimize his family's middle-class origins and emphasize his revolutionary uncle and adoptive father, Jiang Shangqing, who was killed in battle in 1939.

After graduating from the electrical machinery department of Shanghai's Jiaotong University in 1947, Jiang rose through the ranks of state-controlled industries, working in a food factory, a soap factory, and the largest automobile plant in China.

Jiang, like many technocratic officials, worked as a farm laborer during the ultra-radical Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. In 1983, he was appointed minister of the electronics industry, a key but lagging sector that the government hoped to revitalize by attracting foreign investment.

As the mayor of Shanghai from 1985 to 1989, Jiang impressed foreign guests as a representative of a new generation of outwardly focused Chinese leaders.

Deng chose him in 1989 to replace party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was purged for his support of the Tiananmen Square protesters and held under house arrest until he died in 2005.

Jiang, a tenacious political opponent, defied predictions that his tenure as leader would be brief. He consolidated power by promoting his "Shanghai faction" members and increasing military spending by double-digit percentages annually.

Foreign leaders and CEOs who had fled Beijing following the crackdown were convinced to return. Deng emerged from retirement in 1992 to advocate reviving market-style reform in the face of opposition from conservatives following the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and Jiang followed suit.

In the late 1990s, he supported Premier Zhu Rongji, the No. 3 party leader, who pushed through painful changes that eliminated as many as 40 million jobs in the state industry.

Zhu also initiated the privatization of urban housing, sparking a construction boom that transformed Chinese cities into high-rise forests and fueled the economic expansion.

China joined the WTO in 2001, solidifying its position as a magnet for foreign investment after 12 years of negotiations and Zhu's flight to Washington to lobby then-US president Bill Clinton's administration for support.

Despite his affable public image, Jiang dealt harshly with challenges to the ruling party's authority.

His most prominent target was the early 1990s-founded meditation group, Falun Gong. The group's ability to attract tens of thousands of followers, including military officers, alarmed Chinese leaders.

On subversion charges, activists who attempted to form an opposition China Democracy Party, a move permitted by Chinese law, were sentenced to up to 12 years in prison.

Jiang commanded, "Stability above all else," a phrase his successors have used to justify extensive social controls.

Jiang, standing alongside Prince Charles of the United Kingdom, presided over the return of Hong Kong on July 1, 1997, signifying the end of 150 years of European colonialism. In 1999, Macao, a nearby Portuguese territory, was returned to China.

Hong Kong was promised autonomy, and it became a launching pad for mainland firms to expand internationally. In the meantime, Jiang resorted to coercion with Taiwan, which Beijing claims is part of its territory.

Jiang's government attempted to intimidate voters during Taiwan's first direct presidential election in 1996 by firing missiles into nearby shipping lanes. As a show of support, the United States dispatched naval vessels to the region.

Concurrently, annual trade between the mainland and Taiwan increased to billions of dollars.

China's economic boom divided society into winners and losers, as waves of rural residents migrated to factory jobs in cities, the economy multiplied by seven, and urban incomes increased by nearly the same amount.

Once uncommon, protests have spread as millions have lost state jobs and farmers have complained of rising taxes and fees. The divorce rate increased. Corruption prospered.

Jiang Mianheng, one of Jiang's sons, courted controversy in the late 1990s as a broker of telecommunications deals and later as the chairman of China Netcom Co.

Critics charged that he exploited his father's status to advance his career, a common accusation against the children of party leaders.

Jiang Mianheng, who holds a doctorate from Drexel University, went on to hold prominent academic positions, such as president of ShanghaiTech University, in his father's former power base.

Jiang Zemin is survived by his two sons and his wife, Wang Yeping, who worked in government bureaucracies that were responsible for state industries.

Publish : 2022-11-30 17:57:00

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