Jiang Zemin, president of China who opened up his country and oversaw its growth as a global power to rival the USA – obituary

Jiang Zemin in the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, 1992 - Forrest Anderson/Getty Images
Jiang Zemin in the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, 1992 - Forrest Anderson/Getty Images

Jiang Zemin, who has died aged 96, was for 13 years the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and China’s president for 10, overseeing the country’s remarkable recovery and rehabilitation from the dark days of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

At the time of his appointment, Jiang was seen by many as a lightweight and a stopgap. But he used his considerable political wiles first to establish his unquestioned domestic dominance, and then to force through an economic and political opening to the outside world that saw China overtake Russia and all other contenders to the position of chief rival to American power.

He did so, paradoxically, by reasserting the Communist Party’s right to unchallenged rule at the same time as allowing its subjects greater personal freedoms and warming relations with the West. In so doing, he created, partly by chance and partly by skill, the first modern, successful, oligarchical rule of a major country, the consequences of which remain to be seen.

At a personal level, Jiang’s sometimes comic personal vanity, which saw him wildly applaud his own portrait at the parade of leaders during the 60th anniversary of Communist Party rule, left him strangely unloved and often mocked.

His transparent determination to leave his mark on history left many unwilling to recognise the extent of his actual achievements. In his final years, however, he would see the networks of power he had carefully assembled, and which allowed him to continue to wield considerable influence behind the scenes, dismantled by Xi Jinping, the current president.

A vigorous “anti-corruption” campaign often seemed to be aimed squarely at Jiang’s allies, and toppled two of his most promising protégés, the mercurial Bo Xilai, and Zhou Yongkang, the fearsome former security chief.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, with former president Jiang Zemin voting at the closing of the Communist Party Congress in the Great Hall of the People, 2017, Beijing, China - Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, with former president Jiang Zemin voting at the closing of the Communist Party Congress in the Great Hall of the People, 2017, Beijing, China - Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

When Jiang was plucked from relative obscurity to lead the Communist Party in the turbulence of June 1989, China was a pariah state and an economic mess, with high inflation, unemployment and looming international sanctions against it. Hardline conservatives, such as Li Peng, Yao Yilin and Song Ping, were ominously consolidating their power.

By the time he stepped down in 2002, voluntarily if reluctantly, China was the envy of the world and being assiduously courted by Western businesses and politicians. Jiang presided over the handover of Hong Kong back to Beijing, and ground-breaking state visits both to Washington and London.

The wounds and divisions inside the People’s Liberation Army left by the military suppression of the Tiananmen Square student protests had been healed, but a firm division between the army and politics had been drawn: Jiang’s 1997 Politburo standing committee represented the first time that China had not had a soldier at the core of its power since the days of the Dowager Empress at the turn of the 20th century.

Clashes in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, 1989 - Chip HIRES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Clashes in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, 1989 - Chip HIRES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The son of a teacher, Jiang Zemin was born on August 17 1926 in the city of Yangzhou, west of Shanghai. He was given up for adoption to the family of an uncle, an underground Communist sympathiser who had been killed by a bandit, so that that branch of the family could have a male heir.

He went to an American missionary school, where he learned English, then on to study Electrical Engineering at Jiaotong University in Shanghai, where he was said to have developed a taste for Benny Goodman and English films.

He had a lifelong affection for the United States, which expressed itself in his ability not only to quote the Gettysburg Address at Bill Clinton during his visit to Washington in 1997, but also to deliver a stirring rendition of Elvis Presley’s song Love Me Tender, after dinner with President Fidel Ramos of the Philippines at a summit in Manila in 1996.

Jiang Zemin with President Bill Clinton on the South Lawn of the White House during a state arrival ceremony for the Chinese president, Oct 1997 - AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
Jiang Zemin with President Bill Clinton on the South Lawn of the White House during a state arrival ceremony for the Chinese president, Oct 1997 - AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Jiang’s musicality also impressed Luciano Pavarotti, who predicted that the Chinese President could be a “big star” in opera after the two men burst into an impromptu duet of O Sole Mio over lunch in Beijing in 2001. He also took guitar lessons to learn how to play country music.

After the Communists took over China in 1949, Jiang, as the adopted son of a revolutionary martyr, was well-placed to pursue a career in the party. While still at university, he had participated in Communist-led student demonstrations against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government; he joined the Party in 1946.

In 1949 he took a post as an associate engineer and party secretary at a sweet factory in Shanghai, rising to become head of a workshop and deputy director of the factory. In 1955 he was sent to Moscow to work in the Stalin Auto Works for a year as a trainee.

After his return, Jiang served as a director of factories and research institutes in Changchun, Shanghai, and Wuhan, keeping a low profile during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

In 1970 he moved to Romania to represent the Ministry of Machine Building Industry and was then transferred to Beijing, where he steadily worked his way up the party’s bureaucracy in the early 1980s, at one point winning credit for being the first planner of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, the area set up by Deng Xiaoping in 1980 which turbocharged China’s development by enticing foreign investment and boosting exports.

President Jiang Zemin floating on the Dead Sea near Ein Bokek in 2000, during an official visit to Israel, the first by a Chinese president - AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
President Jiang Zemin floating on the Dead Sea near Ein Bokek in 2000, during an official visit to Israel, the first by a Chinese president - AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

While Jiang’s steady rise was partly thanks to Deng’s policy in the 1980s for the Communist party to find younger leaders and new blood, he was also adept at networking and self-promotion. In one instance, Jiang paid a highly-publicised visit to the home of Chen Yun, a Party elder, an event which suggested that Chen looked favourably on the younger man. It later transpired that Jiang had instigated the visit, arranged coverage in the People’s Daily newspaper, and had even had a hand in drafting the resulting article.

Jiang was appointed mayor of Shanghai in 1985, but his four years in charge were uninspiring, and the city’s finances, state businesses and infrastructure deteriorated. Nevertheless, his skill at networking and his charm saw him progress to become the city’s Party Secretary and thus an automatic member of the Politburo in Beijing.

In the weeks that led up to the quashing of the Tiananmen Square protests, Jiang distinguished himself by keeping Shanghai calm, and was praised by Party leaders for closing the offices of the liberal World Economic Herald newspaper.

The Party’s eight elders met twice before June 4 1989 to discuss a successor to Zhao Ziyang, who was purged as General Secretary after advocating a softer line towards the protests. Why they chose Jiang has never been entirely clear – a number of other officials outranked him, and other provincial leaders had been more highly praised.

Indeed, Jiang was seen by many observers merely as a transitional leader. As the first person plucked from the provinces to take charge in the capital, it was said that he was not even familiar with the physical layout of Zhongnanhai, the party’s leadership compound.

Aware of his weakness, and the factional infighting that would follow, Jiang brought with him an invaluable ally, Zeng Qinghong, his propaganda chief in Shanghai. Together they worked to see off the early challenges to Jiang’s rule and managed to purge several of his political rivals. He swiftly earned the nickname “weather vane” on account of his “nose” for the prevailing winds of palace politics.

As Deng’s end neared, Jiang studiously outmanoeuvred his rivals and cultivated a power base that would allow him to survive his mentor, paying particular attention to the military. He often appeared a very different character from the old guard Communists who had ruled the country since the revolution.

While Jiang was the last Chinese leader to remember the days before Communism – the Japanese invasion of China and the corrupt days of Nationalist rule – he was the first General Secretary neither to have taken part in the Long March nor to have served the Party in the “liberation”. His mandate depended not on his pedigree or strength, but on his astute skill as a consensus builder and manipulator.

As Deng’s health deteriorated in the 1990s, Jiang took over ever greater responsibility. In 1989 he had become chairman of the Central Military Commission. In 1993 he was named President of China, and over the next four years he moved to install his supporters on the Politburo’s standing committee and worked to remove his opponents.

Perhaps one of his canniest moves came while drawing up his 1997 standing committee, immediately after Deng’s death, when his ascendancy faced its only serious challenge. Bo Yibo, the father of Bo Xilai and a party “immortal” of Deng’s generation who was then 89, was persuaded to visit the Party’s summer resort of Beidaihe and announce that, in his view, old people like himself should retire and play no part in politics. Bo defined “old” as more than 70, putting enormous pressure on Qiao Shi, then 72 and one of Jiang’s fiercest rivals, to step aside. (Jiang himself was weeks from his 71st birthday, and thus just on the right side of the line.)

The Prince of Wales in 1997 showing the way to Chinese President Jiang Zemin as the British prime minister Tony Blair follows at the end of the ceremony marking the handover of Hong Kong to China - REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
The Prince of Wales in 1997 showing the way to Chinese President Jiang Zemin as the British prime minister Tony Blair follows at the end of the ceremony marking the handover of Hong Kong to China - REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

In his early meetings with Western leaders following Deng’s death, Jiang showed far more flexibility and pragmatism than his successors. After his 1997 summit with Bill Clinton, he ordered the release from jail of the dissident Wei Jingsheng, raising hopes that the new Chinese leadership might respond to calls for democratic reforms.

But Jiang firmly believed in, and entrenched, the authority of the Party as a group of enlightened and educated elites, as they saw it, who could discern China’s national interest without the messiness of democracy.

Jiang was unremitting in his treatment of anything or anyone he saw as a direct threat to that authority. In 1999 he launched a crackdown against the Falun Gong spiritual movement, whose innocuous adherents were labelled as heretics; they were rounded up, jailed, and sometimes killed, by the tens of thousands.

Earlier he had ordered the enforced “disappearance” of the six-year-old boy chosen by the Dalai Lama as the Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s second most senior spiritual figure. The boy has not been seen in public since, and for years was described as the world’s youngest political prisoner.

The paranoia that underlay those decisions pointed to Jiang’s greatest flaw. Without Deng’s vision or strength, his pragmatic rule may have allowed China to grow; but it also allowed the central contradictions of its Communist model – its intolerance, corruption and fondness for vanity projects – to grow too.

Jiang’s decision to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Communist rule in 1999 with 67 new infrastructure projects in Beijing and $22 billion of extra funding caused a rift with Zhu Rongji, the Chinese premier at the time and an astute economic planner. It also seems to have inspired subsequent Chinese leaders to delight in spending vast sums on projects that burnish their own legacy.

It was Jiang who began the era of crony capitalism as Communist Party leaders grabbed the commanding heights of China’s state-owned industries, growing fabulously wealthy in the process.

Jiang attempted to leave his mark on the Party in the mould of Mao and Deng with two ideological campaigns: the Three Stresses and the Three Represents.

In the first, party cadres were told that they should stress political probity, the study of party documents and ideology and the maintenance of an upright lifestyle. If the campaign was an attempt to tackle the growing cronyism and corruption of the party, it failed, and Jiang’s opponents accused him of trying to establish a personality cult.

The Three Represents, meanwhile, sounded merely foolish to Chinese ears – it was quickly punned into the similar sounding “The Three Wristwatches”.

When, as a final act of his leadership, he had them written into the Communist Party constitution, it was seen by many analysts more as a generous nod to his retirement than as a major event in its historical development.

Yet although it failed to gain any popular traction, it was a ground-breaking philosophy, insisting that the Party “represented” the rights and interests not just of the workers but also of entrepreneurs and “cultural forces”.

It was an attempt to set up the Chinese system as a true “Third way” between Communism, which prioritised the worker above all else, and Capitalism, in which entrepreneurs are favoured. Not surprisingly, key British Labour Party theorists such as Peter Mandelson and Anthony Giddens were studied and invited to the Party School in Beijing during Jiang’s years in office. Finally, in 2002, China allowed entrepreneurs to join the Party.

Jiang Zemin delivers his report, speeding up economic reforms, to the 14th Party Congress in Beijing, 1992 - MIKE FIALA/AFP via Getty
Jiang Zemin delivers his report, speeding up economic reforms, to the 14th Party Congress in Beijing, 1992 - MIKE FIALA/AFP via Getty

Jiang’s most lasting legacy was perhaps bringing China back on to the international stage, and steadfastly pursuing a globalist agenda despite the opposition of his rivals, such as Li Peng.

According to a state-sanctioned biography written by the American banker Robert Lawrence Kuhn, Jiang returned to Beijing after the Hong Kong handover ceremony and immediately gave a speech to 62,000 people in the Workers’ Stadium in which he noted that the lesson of Hong Kong was that China became weak when it closed its door to outsiders.

In 1999 he went on to clinch a deal for China to join the World Trade Organisation, a move that led to the country’s trade-fuelled growth and which transformed Chinese cities, bringing hundreds of millions of migrants from the countryside to work on the coast. In the same year Macau was also returned to Chinese rule after more than 400 years as a Portuguese colony.

Jiang’s gregarious nature, which saw him peppering his Chinese with English, Russian, Spanish and even Romanian phrases, impressed foreign leaders. But his rapprochement with the West was briefly put under strain by the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. In April 2001 his support for the United States was tested at home when an American spy plane was forced to crash-land on Hainan island.

Following the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001, it seemed that China had reached a new level in its relationship with the West. Jiang was one of the first foreign leaders to express his condolences and his support for America’s “war on terror”.

Jiang presented himself to the world as a cultured man. He was said to enjoy reading books on economics, science, politics and culture, and was fond of the works of Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Shelley, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekhov and Turgenev, in addition to classical Chinese poetry. He was a keen bridge player.

He played the erhu and bamboo flute (classical Chinese musical instruments) as well as the piano and guitar, and was said to enjoy listening to Chinese folk music, Mozart and Beethoven.

Jiang and his wife, Wang Yeping, had two sons.

Jiang Zemin, born August 17 1926, died November 30 2022