Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin dies aged 96

China’s former leader Jiang Zemin, who came to power after the Tiananmen Square protests, has died at 96.

State media said he had died just after 12:00 local time (04:00 GMT), in Shanghai, on Wednesday.

Jiang presided over a time when China opened up on a vast scale and saw high-speed growth.

His death comes as China sees some of its most serious protests since Tiananmen, with many demonstrating against Covid restrictions.

A Chinese Communist Party statement said he died of leukaemia and multiple organ failure.

It added that he was recognised “as an outstanding leader with high prestige” and “a long-tested Communist fighter”.

State media outlets, including the Global Times and the Xinhua news agency, turned their websites black and white in tribute.

State broadcaster CCTV lauded his role after the bloody 1989 crackdown on protesters in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

“During the serious political turmoil in China in the spring and summer of 1989, Comrade Jiang Zemin supported and implemented the correct decision of the Party Central Committee to oppose unrest, defend the socialist state power and safeguard the fundamental interests of the people,” it said.

The event saw China ostracised internationally and sparked a bitter power struggle at the top of the Communist Party between hard-line reactionaries and reformers.

It led to Jiang, who had originally been seen as a plodding bureaucrat, being elevated to high office. He was chosen as a compromise leader, in the hope he would unify hardliners and more liberal elements.

Under his stewardship, a formidable economy was forged, the Communists tightened their grip on power, and China took its place at the top table of world powers.

He oversaw the peaceful handover of Hong Kong in 1997, and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 which intertwined the country with the global economy.

But political reforms were also put to one side and he crushed internal dissent while pursuing a hardline stance on Taiwan. He was criticised for the heavy-handed crackdown on the religious sect Falun Gong in 1999, which was seen as a threat to the Communist Party.

He was also keen to ensure that his position within the Communist Party was secure, and came up with his own political ideology – the Three Represents theory – in an attempt to modernise the party.

During his time in power, Jiang sought to strengthen ties with the US, visiting the country several times and offering then-president George W Bush co-operation in Washington’s “war on terror” following the 9/11 attacks.

In a country not known for its flamboyant leaders, he was seen as having a more colourful personality than his successors. He memorably crooned Elvis Presley at a global summit, and went for a swim off the Hawaiian coast.

In his later years he withdrew from government and was rarely seen in public. But even as he became less conspicuous, online he became an unlikely subject of viral internet memes.

Many Chinese affectionately caricaturised his signature large spectacles, and likened his appearance to a toad. Young fans called themselves “toad worshippers”.

But others have warned against feeling nostalgic for the Jiang Zemin era.

Wang Dan, one of the 1989 student leaders who now lives outside China, called him “a typical political opportunist”.

“Jiang Zemin appeared to be open-minded, but in fact he tried to change back to a planned economy… but was stopped by Deng Xiaoping. He has always been a conservative politically,” he tweeted (in Chinese).

Some wonder if Jiang’s death might trigger more protests in China now – just as the death of former Chinese Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang led to the Tiananmen Square protests 33 years ago.

But Rose Luqiu, an associate journalism professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, doesn’t believe it’s likely.

“He had disappeared from the public view for a long time,” she told the BBC.

Jiang’s successors as president, Hu Jintao – who was conspicuously removed from the CCP conference last month – and Xi Jinping, are scheduled to attend his funeral, according to a letter released by the state backed Global Times.

But the letter added that foreign leaders and governments will not be invited to the event. The funeral committee said the decision was in keeping with what it called “China’s practice”.

bbc.com