Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, who guided China’s economic rise, dead at age 96 | CBC News


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 in his home city of Shanghai just after noon on Wednesday of leukemia and multiple organ failure, Xinhua news agency said, publishing a letter to the Chinese people describing the death as “an incalculable loss” to the ruling Communist Party.

The letter described “our beloved Comrade Jiang Zemin” as an outstanding leader, a great Marxist, statesman, military strategist and diplomat. The online pages of state media sites including People’s Daily and Xinhua turned to black and white in mourning.

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. 

As China opened to the outside, Jiang’s government stamped out dissent at home. It jailed human rights, labour and pro-democracy activists and banned the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which it viewed as a threat to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and Jiang are shown at the 19th Communist Party Congress on Oct. 24, 2017, in Beijing. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

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 current President Xi Jinping, who took power in 2012. Xi has stuck to Jiang’s mix of economic liberalization and strict political controls.

Transformative leader

Initially seen as a transitional leader, Jiang was drafted on the verge of retirement with a mandate from then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to pull together the party and nation.

But he proved transformative. In 13 years as Communist Party general secretary, the top position in China, he guided China’s rise to global economic power by welcoming capitalists into the Communist Party and pulling in foreign investment after China joined the WTO.

Jiang walks past a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer after arriving at the Museum of Anthropology to attend the APEC summit in Vancouver in November 1997. (Andrew Winning/Reuters)

He presided over the nation’s rise as a global manufacturer, the return of Hong Kong and Macao from Britain and Portugal, and the achievement of a long-cherished dream: winning the competition to host the 2008 Olympic Games for Beijing after an earlier rejection.

Jiang was born Aug. 17, 1926, in the affluent eastern city of Yangzhou. Official biographies downplay his family’s middle-class background, emphasizing instead his uncle and adoptive father, Jiang Shangqing, an early revolutionary who was killed in battle in 1939.

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 soap-making and China’s biggest automobile plant.

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.

As mayor of Shanghai in 1985 to 1989, Jiang impressed foreign visitors as a representative of a new breed of outward-looking Chinese leaders.

Stamping out dissent

Despite a genial public image, Jiang dealt severely with challenges to ruling party power.

His highest-profile target was Falun Gong, a meditation group. Chinese leaders were spooked by its ability to attract tens of thousands of followers, including military officers. Activists who tried to form an opposition China Democracy Party, a move permitted by Chinese law, were sentenced to up to 12 years in prison on subversion charges.

About 40 Falun Gong members are shown taking part in a silent protest in Hong Kong on Oct. 1, 2004. Jiang had banned the movement as a threat to the Chinese Communist Party. (Samantha Sin/AFP/Getty Images)

“Stability above all else,” Jiang ordered, in a phrase his successors have used to justify intensive social controls.

It fell to Jiang, standing beside Britain’s Prince Charles, to preside over the return of Hong Kong on July 1, 1997, symbolizing the end of 150 years of European colonialism. The nearby Portuguese territory of Macao was returned to China in 1999.

Britain’s Prince of Wales, centre, shows the way to Jiang as British Prime Minister Tony Blair follows at the end of the ceremony marking the handover of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

Hong Kong was promised autonomy and became a springboard for mainland companies to go abroad. Meanwhile, Jiang turned to coercion with Taiwan, the self-ruled island Beijing says is part of its territory.

During Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in 1996, Jiang’s government tried to intimidate voters by firing missiles into nearby shipping lanes. The United States responded by sending warships to the area in a show of support.

Economic spoils, but inequality

At the same time, trade between the mainland and Taiwan grew to billions of dollars a year.

China’s economic boom split society into winners and losers as waves of rural residents migrated to factory jobs in cities, the economy grew sevenfold and urban incomes by nearly as much.

Jiang 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.

He is survived by his two sons and his wife, Wang Yeping.

Jiang’s death comes at a tumultuous time in China, where authorities are grappling with rare widespread street protests among residents fed up with heavy-handed COVID-19 curbs nearly three years into the pandemic.

WATCH | Protesters risk freedom in recent demonstrations:

White sheets of paper become a protest symbol in China

White sheets of paper have become symbols of protest in China as thousands call for an end to restrictive ‘zero COVID’ policies and for greater freedoms in a place where censorship is pervasive and protesting can be deadly.

China is also in the midst of a sharp economic slowdown exacerbated by its zero-COVID policy. Numerous users of China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform described the death of Jiang as the end of an era.

“I’m very sad, not only for his departure, but also because I really feel that an era is over,” a Henan province-based user wrote.

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