Jiang Zemin, the Shanghai Communist kingpin who was handpicked to lead China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and presided over a decade of meteoric economic growth, died on Wednesday. He was 96.
A Communist Party announcement issued by Chinese state media said he died in Shanghai of leukemia and multiple organ failure.
His death and the memorial ceremonies to follow come at a delicate moment in China, where the ruling party is confronting a wave of widespread protests against its pandemic controls, a nationwide surge of political opposition unseen since the Tiananmen movement of Mr. Jiang’s time.
Mr. Jiang was president of China for a decade from 1993.In the eyes of many foreign politicians, Mr. Jiang was the garrulous, disarming exception to the mold of stiff, unsmiling Chinese leaders. He was the Communist who would quote Lincoln, proclaim his love for Hollywood films and burst into songs like “Love Me Tender.”
Less enthralled Chinese called him a “flowerpot,” likening him to a frivolous ornament, and mocking his quirky vanities. In his later years young fans celebrated him, tongue-in-cheek, with the nickname “toad.” But Mr. Jiang’s unexpected rise and quirks led others to underestimate him, and over 13 years as Communist Party general secretary he matured into a wily politician who vanquished a succession of rivals.
Mr. Jiang’s stewardship of the capitalist transformation that had begun under Deng Xiaoping was one of his signal accomplishments. He also amassed political influence that endured long past his formal retirement, giving him a big say behind the scenes in picking the current president, Xi Jinping.
The party’s announcement about Mr. Jiang’s death praised him as an “outstanding leader with a lofty reputation.” In the early 1990s, it said, he led China through a time of “massive difficulties and pressure,” and had then steered the country toward market-led growth and military modernization. “At critical moments, he had the exceptional courage to make resolute decisions,” the announcement said.
“This idea that he was a buffoon somehow crept into the descriptions of him,” said J. Stapleton Roy, the United States ambassador to China from 1991 to 1995. “I always found that absurd. This was not a lightweight in terms of knowing how to maneuver within the political thickets at the top of China’s leadership.”
In a meeting with former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger in July 2013, Mr. Jiang endorsed Mr. Xi as a “strong” leader. But Mr. Jiang’s own first years as leader were dogged by hesitancy and vulnerability after he was catapulted to the top of the Communist Party.
At first he tried to mollify ascendant conservatives who opposed China’s tentative steps toward a market economy. But ultimately he pushed to open the economy to the outside world even after Mr. Deng’s health and power had waned.
Under Mr. Jiang, China emerged as a major manufacturing power and as a rising economic rival to the developed world.
Relations with the United States proved rocky during his tenure, particularly early on, when the carnage of 1989 cast a long shadow. But Mr. Jiang may be viewed in hindsight as a pragmatist. Unlike his successors in the Communist Party, he seemed convinced that China could not thrive for long as an adversary of the United States.
“He always put heavy primacy on the U.S. relationship, and I think he took some risks to advance the relationship,” said Christopher K. Johnson, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis. Mr. Johnson, a C.I.A. analyst when Mr. Jiang was in power, added: “He knew how to flip the anti-U.S. switch when he had to.”
When American-guided bombs hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing three Chinese journalists during the breakup of Yugoslavia, Mr. Jiang rejected the Clinton administration’s explanation that the bombing was an accident.
And in a standoff in 2001, he demanded that the United States shoulder full responsibility for a collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a propeller-driven American surveillance plane. The collision caused the death of the Chinese pilot and an emergency landing of the American plane on Hainan, a southern Chinese island, where its crew was detained.
But it was not a coincidence that Mr. Jiang’s years in office were the golden age of China’s embrace of globalization. He won China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in late 2001 after years of contentious negotiations, primarily with the United States. And he overhauled Communist Party doctrine, modernizing a movement rooted in the working classes and peasantry into one that courted and co-opted intellectuals and an emerging business elite.
His critics in China and abroad viewed these steps as little more than tacking with the political winds. And in truth, Mr. Jiang’s pro-market leanings commingled with an intolerance of dissent. After members of the Falun Gong spiritual sect surrounded the Communist Party headquarters in protest in April 1999, Mr. Jiang pressed for mass detentions, which set the pattern for later rounds of repression and for an increasingly powerful security state.
“How could it be that the Falun Gong just appeared?” Mr. Jiang exclaimed, according to a 2005 biography by Robert Lawrence Kuhn, who had Mr. Jiang’s implicit cooperation. “Where was our Ministry of Public Security? Where was our Ministry of State Security?”
Rising From the Tumult
Mr. Jiang will forever be known first as the man party elders plucked out of relative obscurity in 1989 when they were preparing to order the armed suppression of student protests based in Tiananmen Square. His hasty elevation to the pinnacle of China’s Communist Party led many to believe that his time there might well be brief and unremarkable. Even Mr. Jiang thought so.
“I had no intention of heading the whole country,” he told Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes” in 2000. “I hoped that a more capable candidate would take the job.”
Acting outside normal party rules, Mr. Deng and a handful of retired elders decided to replace the party general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, who had resisted authorizing the use of armed force against the students. Mr. Zhao spent the rest of his life under house arrest, dying in 2005.
For his replacement, Mr. Deng looked to Shanghai, where Mr. Jiang, the city’s party secretary, had tamed student protests without bloodshed.
“This fellow Jiang Zemin has ideas, ability and also has charisma,” Mr. Deng said at a meeting in May 1989, according to an account by Li Peng, the prime minister at the time.
Jiang Zemin (his given name, Zemin, roughly means “benefit the people”) was born on Aug. 17, 1926, in Yangzhou, an ancient Yangtze River city northwest of Shanghai.
His father, Jiang Shijun, was an accountant in an electric power company and then a manager of a ferry company. His mother, Wu Yueqing, came from a farming family. Two of his uncles were activists in the Communist movement against the Nationalist government, and after one was killed in a skirmish in 1939, the young Mr. Jiang was designated the successor of the uncle’s family.
Mr. Jiang joined the Communist Party in 1946 in Shanghai, where he studied electrical engineering and learned English. His first job was as a technician for a company founded by American investors that made Pretty Girl ice cream and other frozen treats. When the Communists took power in 1949, Mr. Jiang helped put the factory under party control and change the name of the ice cream to Bright. That feat won the attention of a party figure, Wang Daohan, who would become a lifelong patron of Mr. Jiang’s.
Even in old age, Mr. Jiang liked to sing English-language tunes remembered from his cosmopolitan youth, including one called “Moonlight and Shadows,” from the 1936 Hollywood movie “The Jungle Princess.”
In 1951, Mr. Jiang married Wang Yeping, a fellow native of Yangzhou, and they had two sons: Jiang Mianheng, who became an electrical engineer, a business executive and the president of a science institute; and Jiang Miankang, who also became an engineer-turned-businessman and government official.
Mr. Jiang rose through the industrial bureaucracy, working for a while in the 1950s at the Stalin Automobile Works in Moscow and spending a year as a diplomat in Romania, where he picked up folk tunes that he would sing for visitors decades later.
After China began opening up from the late 1970s, Mr. Jiang was promoted to a foreign investment and trade commission that helped establish special economic zones in Guangdong and Fujian Provinces. The experience gave him an early taste of the political and bureaucratic hurdles that market reforms faced. He was selected as mayor of Shanghai in 1985, giving him ties to the incipient commercial boom in coastal regions.
Mr. Jiang was promoted to Shanghai party secretary, the city’s top job, and then to the national party’s ruling body, the Politburo, in 1987. Two years later, when student protests rocked the nation, Shanghai avoided widespread bloodshed.
Mr. Jiang’s loyalty and his distance from the violence in Beijing were powerful factors in his favor, the scholar Bruce Gilley wrote in his 1998 biography of Mr. Jiang, “Tiger on the Brink.” Yet it was unclear at the start whether Mr. Jiang would be much more than a caretaker until a permanent leader was found.
Tilting Toward Capitalism
Lacking a political base, Mr. Jiang went along with the party’s conservative tilt after 1989. He took a tough stance against dissent, deeming stability the nation’s top priority, even rivaling Mr. Deng’s economic transformation. And he endorsed policies that pointed toward a reassertion of party control over economic life.
“When Jiang Zemin first came to power, he didn’t have his own power and needed to rely on the elders,” said Yang Jisheng, a Beijing historian whose works include a political history of China under reform. “The elders were divided, and Jiang Zemin was trying to please both sides, but he ended up displeasing Deng Xiaoping.”
Mr. Deng, elderly but still powerful, was increasingly worried that his legacy of economic liberalization would be destroyed by an ideological backlash, and he rebuked Mr. Jiang publicly in 1992 by barnstorming China’s south coast, the cradle of economic reform, complaining that China’s transformation was stalling.
Mr. Jiang “said that 1992 was the hardest year of his life,” Mr. Kuhn, his biographer, said in an interview.
Getting the message that his patron was chafing for change, Mr. Jiang embraced China’s state-managed capitalism. Zhu Rongji, his successor as Shanghai mayor and an economic reformer, had been brought to Beijing months earlier to buttress Mr. Jiang. He became the point man for Mr. Deng’s market liberalization as deputy prime minister and later as prime minister.
Mr. Jiang wooed foreign investors, hosting the chief executives of multinational companies at Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound in Beijing. He encouraged major foreign-Chinese joint ventures, helping to transform the country into a primary global base for companies making pharmaceuticals, computers, automobiles and much more. He steered many billions of dollars in state investments toward China’s east coast cities, notably his political power base of Shanghai, creating first-world metropolises that impressed visitors.
As Mr. Jiang grew comfortable in power, he sought to sell China’s system and himself in a freewheeling manner that his successors would abhor. When President Bill Clinton visited China in 1998, Mr. Jiang broke with customary caution and allowed a joint news conference to be broadcast live on Chinese television. The two presidents parried over human rights and Tibet.
“You could see that he wanted to be thought of as somebody who was not the sort of retrograde, Leninist leader clinging to his notes,” said the journalist Orville Schell, who was on Mr. Clinton’s trip and who is now director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. “He wanted China to emerge out of the chrysalis of its isolation.”
Overcoming passionate objections by party hard-liners, Mr. Jiang and Mr. Zhu shepherded China into full membership in the World Trade Organization, giving it increased access to global markets and, in principle, ensuring that foreign businesses would have greater access to Chinese markets. It was perhaps the most crucial act in a long struggle to bring China into the international arena.
China’s economy took off, and the country produced its first millionaires, then billionaires. It fell to Mr. Zhu, with fiscal instincts that Mr. Jiang lacked, to douse the economic excesses of the 1990s.
“He was comfortable letting Zhu Rongji do the dirty work, but he was backing Zhu Rongji,” said Mr. Roy, the former ambassador.
For the Communist Party, prosperity brought another problem: how to find a new doctrinal footing amid growing affluence and inequality. Mr. Jiang’s response — one of his most important political accomplishments — was the theory of the Three Represents.
It was a call for the party to represent not only the working class, but also the very classes that it once deemed oppressors: the rich entrepreneurs and bourgeoisie. Leading party theorists saw Mr. Jiang’s plan as a risky attempt to defuse potential opposition to single-party rule by a class with both the money and the power to foster political instability.
“The decision to move the private entrepreneurs into the party was a big deal, and he took a lot of flak for that,” said Mr. Johnson, the former C.I.A. analyst. “Jiang saw that they were an emerging constituency that they could either have inside the tent or making trouble from outside the tent.”
The feral capitalism that Mr. Jiang and Mr. Zhu fostered created a wide rich-poor divide even as it lifted vast numbers from poverty, and it nurtured a culture of official corruption and cronyism.
“In some ways, that was the start of this live-and-let-live attitude toward corruption that Xi Jinping now finds himself attacking,” said Joseph Fewsmith, a professor at Boston University who studies Chinese leadership politics.
By the time Mr. Jiang retired from the party leadership in 2002 and from the presidency in 2003, his influence and self-regard had swollen so much that he was reluctant to leave the political stage. (His successor, Hu Jintao, had already been designated by Mr. Deng.)
Mr. Jiang lingered as chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, overseeing the People’s Liberation Army until 2004, and then continued to play a back-room role in promotions. Party insiders said Mr. Jiang had used his influence to shape the leadership lineup that Mr. Xi inherited when he became party leader in November 2012.
In August 2015, People’s Daily, the party’s flagship newspaper, issued an unusually blunt warning that retired leaders should stay out of politics and “cool off” like a cup of tea after a guest has left. The commentary fanned rumors that Mr. Xi had been irked by Mr. Jiang’s efforts to exert power behind the scenes, but the two men soon after appeared on the rostrum together with former President Hu Jintao during a military parade in Beijing.
But the influence of Mr. Jiang and his coterie of allies, sometimes known as the Shanghai Faction, has faded over the last decade. At a Communist Party congress last month, Mr. Xi installed a new Politburo Standing Committee, the seven men who run China, that is entirely composed of his loyalists, with no holdovers of officials with close ties to his predecessors, Mr. Jiang and Mr. Hu.
“Jiang Zemin continued to wield influence even after he stepped down, but that hurt his reputation,” said Mr. Yang, the Beijing historian. “He did that because he was comfortable with power, but also because around him there was a circle of people who relied on him and puffed him up to make him think he was indispensable.”
But in his last years, Mr. Jiang became an unlikely online folk hero for younger Chinese. They mocked his mannerisms and purported resemblance to a toad, while slyly celebrating his relative tolerance compared with his successors. They recalled the time in 2000 when he berated Hong Kong journalists in English: “Too simple, sometimes naïve.”
In his appearance on “60 Minutes” in 2000, Mr. Jiang, smiling determinedly, his eyes obscured by huge square eyeglasses, recited the opening of the Gettysburg Address, which he had learned as a student. When Mr. Wallace said that some people had called him a “silk-wrapped needle,” a man with hidden toughness, Mr. Jiang demurred, though with a flourish.
“People used the same phrase to describe the character of Deng Xiaoping,” he said. “I don’t think I should be put on a par with Deng.”
But, he added, “I am a decisive figure.”
Joseph Kahn contributed reporting.