Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who led the country through its emergence from isolation after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre to a decade of rapid economic growth and reform, died on Wednesday at the age of 96, Chinese state media reported.
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 nation from the Communist Party, the military and other top organs, expressing “profound grief.”
“Our beloved Comrade Jiang Zemin died of leukemia and multiple organ failure after all medical treatments had failed,” Xinhua quoted the letter as saying.
“Comrade Jiang Zemin was an outstanding leader enjoying high prestige acknowledged by the whole Party, the entire military and the Chinese people of all ethnic groups,” it said.
Jiang, who served as state president from 1993 to 2003, was “a great Marxist, a great proletarian revolutionary, statesman, military strategist and diplomat, a long-tested communist fighter, and an outstanding leader of the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” the letter said.
Breaking out of isolation
The Moscow-trained electrical engineer teamed up with economist Premier Zhu Rongji to ramp up economic reforms in the late 1990s, pushing through politically difficult market-opening reforms that helped China join the World Trade Organization in 2001, drawing vast foreign investment into its increasingly attractive economy.
China’s rising profile in turn made an accidental statesman of Jiang, who appeared to relish the international limelight and rubbing shoulders with world leaders, ranging from from the U.S. President Bill Clinton to British Prime Minister Tony Blair to the upcoming Russian leader Vladimir Putin. He also kept the faith by meeting with traditional Communist allies like Cuba’s Fidel Castro and North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.
In a Leninist party known for gray, dour apparatchiks making highly scripted public appearances, Jiang was colorful, breaking into song, reciting poetry and speaking English phrases in public meetings with foreign leaders and the media.
Plucked from relative obscurity to head the ruling Communist Party after the deadly Tiananmen crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, Jiang was initially regarded as a mere placeholder to keep inter-party factional peace during a time of chaos and international isolation.
But he served 15 years in the key post of head of the military, retiring in 2004, and played a key role in breaking China out of that isolation
During his tenure, China mended strained diplomatic ties with key Western countries after Tiananmen, recovered sovereignty over the then British colony Hong Kong, entered the WTO and won the right to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.
In domestic politics, he led the effort to admit entrepreneurs to the ruling Communist Party, drafting a clunky ideology known as the “Theory of Three Represents.”
Although China had been an authoritarian one-party state since its founding by Mao Zedong in 1949, the Jiang era was liberal, open and optimistic–compared to the past decade under current President Xi Jinping.
Xi, 69, has shifted the country back in a totalitarian direction since he took power in 2012, and last month secured a norm-breaking third term that sets him up to rule for life.
Jiang’s death comes as Xi is scrambling to quell days of protests in most major cities against his unpopular “zero-COVID” policies of strict lockdowns and intrusive testing.
To be sure, Jiang’s tenure was not an era of political liberalization to match economic reforms.
.Maya Wang, senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch, was quick to point out Wednesday that Jiang’s administration was responsible for post-Tiananmen atrocities.
Jiang, she tweeted, “pushed to escalate the draconian 1-Child policy in 1991…leading to widespread suffering incl forced abortions (incl at late term), forced sterilizations, dramatic reduction in births, and abandoned girls.”
And after widespread protests by the Falun Gong spiritual movement in 1999, Jiang mounted a brutal “crackdown on Falun Gong, & established the secretive & extralegal ‘610 offices’ across the country that hunt, imprison, torture practitioners to this day,” wrote Wang.
‘Cul de sac’ in Tibet
Tibetans and Uyghurs recall Jiang’s rule as the beginning of the tightening of already repressive policies in their Western homelands that Xi has since intensified to dystopian levels, bringing accusations of genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and related concerns in Tibet.
“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jiang Zemin crushed Uyghurs internally as separatists and externally used every means to prevent the internationalization of the East Turkestan issue,”said Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project in Canada.
“It was really Jiang Zemin who had paved the way for Xi Jinping to implement the current hardline policies against the Uyghurs after 2014.”
Jiang launched a policy of revving up economic development by relocating Chinese businessmen and bolstering security by crushing dissent that “left behind a very important and lasting legacy for China’s way of dealing with Tibet,” said London-based Tibet scholar Robbie Barnett.
That approach, adopted in 1994, “was founded on the principle that you blame everything on the Dalai Lama personally,” he told RFA Tibetan.
“The Dalai Lama was described as a blasphemer against the Tibetan religion and the source of all problems in Tibetan society,” said Barnett.
“It was a cul de sac for China’s policy. They have never been able to extricate themselves from that position,” he added.
Scholars and labor activists point to brutal crackdowns on protests by workers laid off when China opened its economy to limited foreign competition under its WTO commitments. Some 60 million workers lost their jobs during the painful transition.
“During Jiang Zemin’s time, there were waves of large-scale labor movements in Beijing, but Jiang used the armed police to suppress them, and the scale was much larger than it is now,” said Chinese journalist and writer Deng Yuwen.
“On the one hand, open the economy, and on the other hand, suppress human rights and human rights defenders once the CCP’s rule is endangered,” he told RFA Mandarin.
A separate Xinhua report said that flags would fly at half-mast at Tiananmen, the Great Hall of the People and other prominent government buildings in China, as well as Chinese embassies around the world.
“In accordance with China’s practice, foreign governments, political parties and friendly personages will not be invited to send delegations or representatives to China to attend the mourning activities,” the report said.