Jiang Zemin, former president who guided China's rise, dies at 96

FILE - Chinese then President Jiang Zemin makes a point during a press conference in Beijing, one day before his departure for an eight-day visit to the U.S, Oct. 25, 1997. Jiang has died in Shanghai Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, at age 96, according to state media. (AP Photo/Greg Baker, File)
Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin has died at 96, state media in China reported. (Greg Baker / Associated Press)
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Jiang Zemin, the unlikely former leader who stewarded China through groundbreaking economic reforms and served as a bridge between the country’s strongman era and a more consensus-driven government, has died. He was 96.

Chinese state television reported Jiang's death Wednesday, saying the former leader had died in Shanghai, a city he once led as mayor.

The announcement ends periodic speculation about whether the ailing party elder, who served as the country’s Communist Party chief from 1989 to 2002 and president from 1993 to 2003, had died.

The death of a member of the ruling party's elite has traditionally been a highly sensitive event, one that has even sparked deadly demonstrations, as in 1989 with the passing of reformer Hu Yaobang. But Jiang’s death is not nearly as politically delicate as his two predecessors’ — Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping — a reality that reflects both the relative stability of China today and the mixed legacy Jiang leaves behind.

Still, Jiang continued to exert some power behind the scenes until his final years. President Xi Jinping was a protege of Jiang’s, and the strong presence of Jiang allies on the Politburo Standing Committee helped Xi to pursue a tough anti-corruption drive and quickly consolidate power after rising to the party’s top post in 2013.

The first Chinese Communist Party chief without a military background, Jiang never attained the revolutionary cult of personality assigned to Mao but nevertheless formed the nucleus of communist China’s third generation of leaders.

Born Aug. 17, 1926, in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, Jiang was a graduate of an American missionary school. He could recite the Gettysburg Address by heart and often did so during interviews. He told poor jokes, wrote poetry and played the piano on national television.

With his high-waisted pants, owl glasses and penchant for breaking into song (he once sang “O Sole Mio” with the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti), Jiang did not command an aura of seriousness that most Chinese had come to expect of their leaders.

He was dubbed “flowerpot,” a criticism for looking nice but not doing much. He earned the nickname “Weathervane” for expertly knowing which way the political winds blew. He was also accused of being too smitten with foreign culture and quick to show off his English.

Jiang’s improbable rise to the nation’s top post was propelled by a mixture of political acumen and good timing after serving as mayor and party chief of Shanghai.

He found a political patron in Deng, who handpicked Jiang to become the party’s general secretary after the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. It was a time of chaos that brought the party to the brink of collapse, and the relative obscurity of Jiang, who was free of any ties to Beijing, was considered an advantage.

“Jiang was the candidate who was least disliked of all the other possible contenders,” said Kerry Brown, an expert on the Chinese Communist Party and a professor of Chinese studies at King's College London. “There were no expectations of him beyond that, and in his early years in power, he lived in the shadow of the great paramount leader, Deng.”

Yet Jiang would preside over some of China’s most important economic milestones, including efforts to downsize and restructure parts of the country’s enormous and wasteful state sector, the retreat of the military from private business and China’s 2001 accession to the World Trade Organization four years after Deng’s death.

Jiang’s contribution to party doctrine was titled the “Three Represents,” a clunky and sometimes ridiculed document that nonetheless succeeded in giving entrepreneurs greater status in politics at a time when China desperately needed private-sector jobs.

In effect, Jiang’s embrace of financial reform was a continuation of Deng’s social contract with the Chinese people: to accept the rule of the party in exchange for getting rich.

But as beneficial as this was for many, it also accelerated the nation’s staggering environmental degradation, opened the floodgates for corruption and widened the gap between rich and poor.

“The fiscal reforms on his watch dramatically enhanced the central government’s control over fiscal revenue and thus laid the foundations for various social policy programs,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “Yet others would blame this policy for weakening the local authorities and generating all sorts of side effects, including land grabs by local authorities that have pushed state-society relations in many communities to the boiling point.”

The party’s grip on power also tightened under Jiang as authorities brutally silenced dissent by jailing or executing democracy activists. A violent campaign against the banned spiritual group known as Falun Gong remains one of the blackest marks against Jiang in the eyes of human rights defenders.

Jiang’s tenure included the return of Hong Kong and Macao to Chinese sovereignty from British and Portuguese control, respectively.

When it came time to hand over the party reins to Hu Jintao in 2002, Jiang had the distinction of being the first communist Chinese leader to bow out in an orderly transfer of power, one that was not brought on by death, purge or bloodshed.

Jin Zhong, a veteran political analyst based in Hong Kong, said Xi — China's most powerful leader in decades — assumed the presidency in 2013 with such a powerful sense of inheritance and destiny that Jiang now seems to pale in comparison. He suggested that Jiang’s legacy is likely to be a muted one and compared him to Leonid Brezhnev, who led the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, after Nikita Khrushchev.

“Jiang took office after [the Tiananmen crackdown] and was the biggest beneficiary of that event,” Jin said. “After that, he tried to strengthen one-party rule. Though he continued on with the policy of economic opening and reform and growth, political opening and reform went backward.”

Jiang is survived by his wife, Wang Yeping; two sons, Jiang Mianheng and Jiang Miankang; and a grandson, Jiang Zhicheng, also known as Alvin Jiang.

Former Times staff writer Julie Makinen contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.