Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who brought his country out of lockdown after pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square were crushed and backed economic reforms that led to a decade of explosive growth, has died at the age of 96, state media reported.
Jiang died in Shanghai.
A surprise choice to lead a divided Communist Party after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, Jiang has seen China go through historic changes, including a revival of market-oriented reforms, Hong Kong’s return from British rule in 1997, and the Beijing’s entry into the World Trade Organization. in 2001.
Jiang crushed the Falun Gong religious movement
Even as China opened up to the outside world, Jiang’s government crushed dissent at home. He imprisoned human rights, labor and pro-democracy activists and banned the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which he saw as a threat to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.
The movement that promotes spiritual enlightenment initially enjoyed support from Chinese Communist Party officials, but the government began to view its influence as a threat in the late 1990s.
According to official data, Falun Gong had nearly 70 million practitioners in 1999.
The government launched a nationwide campaign of repression against the movement that year. At least 2,000 Falun Gong practitioners have died in China due to abuse in custody, human rights groups estimated in 2009.
From transitional leader to transformative leader
Jiang relinquished his last official title in 2004, but remained a behind-the-scenes force in the feuds that led to the rise of current President Xi Jinping, who took power in 2012. Xi stuck to the mixture of economic liberalization and Jiang’s strict political controls.
Initially seen as a transitional leader, Jiang was recruited on the verge of retirement with a mandate from then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping to bring the party and nation together.
But it turned out to be transformative. In 13 years as General Secretary of the Communist Party, the highest post in China, he guided China’s rise to global economic power by welcoming capitalists into the Communist Party and attracting foreign investment after China’s accession to the WTO.
He presided over the nation’s rise as a global manufacturer, the return of Hong Kong and Macau from Britain and Portugal, and the realization of a long-cherished dream of winning the competition to host the Games. Olympics after an earlier rejection.
A former soap factory manager, Jiang capped off his career with the first orderly succession of the communist era, handing over his post as party leader in 2002 to Hu Jintao, who took over as president the following year.
Jiang has tried to retain his influence by remaining chairman of the Central Military Commission, which controls the party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, which has 2.3 million members. He gave up this position in 2004 following complaints that he could split the government.
Even after leaving office, Jiang had influence over promotions through his network of proteges.
He was reportedly frustrated that Deng chose Hu as the next leader, preventing Jiang from installing his own successor. But Jiang was seen as successful in elevating allies to the party’s seven-member Standing Committee, China’s inner circle of power, when Xi became leader in 2012.
Bold and owlish in oversized glasses, Jiang was an exuberant figure who played the piano and loved to sing, unlike his more reserved successors, Hu and Xi.
He spoke enthusiastic if hesitant English and recited the Gettysburg address for foreign visitors. During a visit to Britain, he tried to entice Queen Elizabeth II to sing karaoke.
“Jiang had disappeared from public view and appeared publicly for the last time alongside current and former leaders atop Beijing’s Tiananmen Gate during a 2019 military parade celebrating the ruling party’s 70th anniversary. He was absent from a major party convention last month where former leaders are given seats in recognition of their service.
Jiang was born on August 17, 1926 in the affluent eastern city of Yangzhou. Official biographies downplay his family’s middle-class origins, instead emphasizing his uncle and adoptive father, Jiang Shangqing, an early revolutionary who was killed in action in 1939.
After graduating from the electrical machinery department of Shanghai Jiaotong University in 1947, Jiang rose through the ranks of state-controlled industries, working in a food factory, then in soap manufacturing and the largest factory. car from China.
Like many technocratic officials, Jiang spent part of the ultra-radical Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 as a farmhand. His professional rise resumed, and in 1983 he was appointed minister of the electronics industry, then a key but backward sector which the government hoped to revive by inviting foreign investment.
As mayor of Shanghai from 1985 to 1989, Jiang impressed foreign visitors as the representative of a new breed of outward-looking Chinese leaders.
He was about to retire when Deng chose him in 1989 to replace party general secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was purged because of his sympathy for Tiananmen protesters and held under house arrest until his death. in 2005.
A fierce political fighter, Jiang defied predictions that his tenure as ruler would be short-lived. He consolidated power by promoting members of his “Shanghai Faction” and granting the military annual double-digit percentage increases in spending.
Foreign leaders and CEOs who fled Beijing after the crackdown have been persuaded to return. When Deng came out of retirement in 1992 to push for the revival of market-like reform in the face of conservative opposition after the Tiananmen crackdown, Jiang followed suit.
He backed Premier Zhu Rongji, the party’s No. 3, who pushed through painful changes that cut up to 40 million jobs in state industry in the late 1990s.
Zhu also spearheaded the privatization of urban housing, sparking a building boom that turned Chinese cities into forests of skyscrapers and propelled economic growth.
After 12 years of negotiations and a flight from Zhu to Washington to lobby the Clinton administration for support, China joined the WTO in 2001, cementing its position as a magnet for foreign investment.
Despite a brilliant public image, Jiang dealt harshly with the ruling party’s challenges to power.
Its most publicized target was Falun Gong, a meditation group founded in the early 1990s. Chinese leaders were spooked by the group’s ability to attract tens of thousands of followers, including military officers.
Activists who attempted to form an opposition party for Chinese democracy, a move permitted by Chinese law, were sentenced to up to 12 years in prison for subversion.
“Stability above all else,” ordered Jiang, in a phrase his successors have used to justify intensive social controls.
It fell to Jiang, standing alongside Britain’s Prince Charles, to preside over Hong Kong’s return on July 1, 1997, symbolizing the end of 150 years of European colonialism. The neighboring Portuguese territory of Macau was returned to China in 1999.
Hong Kong was promised autonomy and has become a springboard for mainland businesses overseas. Meanwhile, Jiang has turned to coercion with Taiwan, the self-governing island Beijing says is its territory.
In Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in 1996, Jiang’s government attempted to intimidate voters by firing missiles at nearby shipping lanes. The United States responded by sending warships to the region in support.
At the same time, trade between the mainland and Taiwan has increased to billions of dollars annually.
China’s economic boom has divided society into winners and losers, as waves of rural residents migrated to factory jobs in cities, the economy grew sevenfold and urban incomes nearly as much.
The once rare protests have spread as millions lost jobs in the state and farmers complained about rising taxes and fees. Divorce rates have soared. Corruption flourished.
One of Jiang’s sons, Jiang Mianheng, courted controversy in the late 1990s as a telecommunications trader and later chairman of the telephone company China Netcom Co.
Critics have accused him of abusing his father’s status to promote his career, a common complaint against the children of party leaders.
Jiang Mianheng, Ph.D. from Drexel University, went on to hold senior academic positions, including president of ShanghaiTech University in his father’s former power base.
Jiang is survived by his two sons and his wife, Wang Yeping, who worked in government bureaucracies in charge of state industries.
With contributions from agencies
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