Former President Jiang Zemin, who led China out of isolation after the army crushed the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989 and supported economic reforms that led to a decade of explosive growth, died Wednesday. He was 96. Jiang died of leukemia and multiple organ failure in Shanghai, where he was a former mayor and Communist Party secretary, state TV and the official Xinhua News Agency reported. Rumors that Jiang might be in declining health spread after he missed a ruling party congress in October at which current President Xi Jinping, China's most powerful figure since at least the 1980s, broke with tradition and awarded himself a third five-year term as leader, per the AP.
Jiang was born Aug. 17, 1926, in the affluent eastern city of Yangzhou. After graduating from the electrical machinery department of Jiaotong University in Shanghai in 1947, Jiang advanced through the ranks of state-controlled industries, working in a food factory, then in soap making and in China's biggest automobile plant. Like many technocratic officials, Jiang spent part of the ultra-radical 1966-'76 Cultural Revolution as a farm laborer. His career rise resumed, and in 1983 he was named minister of the electronics industry, then a key but backward sector the government hoped to revive by inviting foreign investment. Jiang was on the verge of retirement as Shanghai party leader in 1989 when he was drafted by then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to pull together the party and nation.
He succeeded Zhao Ziyang, who was dismissed by Deng due to his sympathy for the student-led Tiananmen Square protesters and held under house arrest until his 2005 death. A surprise choice to lead a divided Communist Party after the 1989 turmoil, Jiang saw China through history-making changes, including a revival of market-oriented reforms, the return of Hong Kong from British rule in 1997, and Beijing's entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Even as China opened to the outside, however, Jiang's government stamped out dissent. It jailed human rights, labor, and pro-democracy activists and banned the Falun Gong spiritual movement. A tough political fighter, Jiang defied predictions that his stint as leader would be short. He consolidated power by promoting members of his "Shanghai faction" and giving the military double-digit annual percentage increases in spending.
Jiang gave up his last official title in 2004 but remained a force behind the scenes in the wrangling that led to the rise of Xi, who took power in 2012. Xi has tightened political control, crushed China's little remaining dissent, and reasserted the dominance of state industry. Portly and owlish in oversize glasses, Jiang was an ebullient figure who played the piano and enjoyed singing, in contrast to his more reserved successors, Xi and Hu Jintao. He spoke enthusiastic if halting English and would recite the Gettysburg Address for foreign visitors. On a visit to Britain, he tried to coax Queen Elizabeth II into singing karaoke. Jiang had faded from public sight and last appeared publicly alongside current and former leaders atop Beijing's Tiananmen Gate at a 2019 military parade celebrating the party's 70th anniversary in power. Jiang is survived by his two sons and his wife, Wang Yeping.
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