Former Chinese top leader Jiang Zemin dies at age 96

Jiang led China out of deep isolation and onto to the world stage after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
By RFA Mandarin, Tibetan and Uyghur

Participants wave floral bouquets as they march next to a large portrait of Chinese leader Jiang Zemin during a parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing, Oct. 1, 2019. Credit: Reuters


Chinese President Jiang Zemin poses in front of the Taj Mahal in the north Indian tourist city of Agra, Nov. 30. Jiang was in India on a three-day visit aimed at improving ties with the country. Credit: Reuters


North Korean leader Kim Il Sung arrives in Beijing Station, China, and is welcomed by the People's Liberation Army honor guard with Jiang Zemin [left], Oct. 4, 1991. Credit: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP Images


Chinese President Jiang Zemin combs down his hair next to Spanish King Juan Carlos during welcoming ceremonies at El Pardo palace in Spain, June 24, 1996. Credit: Reuters


Chinese President Jiang Zemin, wearing a traditional Chinese embroidered silk jacket, welcomes his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum for an informal gathering of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders Oct. 21, 2001. Credit: Reuters


Chinese President Jiang Zemin [right] meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Beijing, China, June 1, 2000. Credit: Xinhua via AP


Chinese President Jiang Zemin [right] does the "Hongi," a traditional greeting of nose touching, with Maori Elder Hugh Kawharu at a welcoming ceremony for the Asia Pacific Economic summit leaders in Auckland, New Zealand, Sept. 12, 1999. Credit: Associated Press


Britain's Prince of Wales shows the way to Chinese President Jiang Zemin as British Prime Minister Tony Blair follows at the end of the ceremony marking the handover of Hong Kong to China, July 1, 1997. Credit: Reuters


Russian President Boris Yeltsin hugs his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin before official welcome ceremonies in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Nov. 10, 1997. Credit: Reuters


Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Queen Elizabeth II pose for a photograph in the Music Room before a state banquet at Buckingham Palace, Oct. 19, 1999. President Jiang was the first Chinese head of state to visit Britain. Credit: Reuters


Chinese President Jiang Zemin gestures as he speaks in Spanish while Cuban leader Fidel Castro looks on during their tour of a trade fair of Chinese goods in Havana's El Nacional Hotel, April 13, 2001. Credit: Reuters


Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hold hands in the Teresa Carreno Theatre in Caracas, April 17, 2001. Credit: Reuters


Former U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger laughs as Chinese President Jiang Zemin [left] reacts to interpreter Xu Hui's [center] translation of Kissinger's comments during a speaking engagement at the Asian Society in Washington, D.C., Oct. 30, 1997. Credit: AFP


Chinese President Jiang Zemin laughs as he sits next to former U.S. President George H.W. Bush at a dinner honoring Zemin, Oct. 23, 2002 in Houston. Credit: Reuters


U.S. President Bill Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin review Chinese troops during arrival ceremonies at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, June 27, 1998. Credit: Associated Press


U.S. President George W. Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin pose with their wives, Laura and Wang Yeping, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Oct. 25, 2002. Credit: Reuters


U.S. President George W. Bush is given flowers as Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets Bush upon his arrival in Beijing, Feb. 21, 2002. Credit: Associated Press


Chinese President Jiang Zemin inspects the honor guard in London during his four-day state visit to the United Kingdom, the first by a Chinese head of state, Oct. 19, 1999. Credit: Pool via Associated Press


An assistant places a yamulka on the head of Chinese President Jiang Zemin as he enters the Yad Veshem Holocaust Memorial's Hall of Remembrances, April 13, 2000. Credit: Reuters


Chinese President Jiang Zemin tries on a new cowboy hat given to him by Calgary Mayor Al Duerr in Calgary, Canada, Nov. 26, 1997. Credit: Reuters


Chinese President Jiang Zemin waves as he wears an 18th-century American colonial tricorn hat during a tour of Colonial Williamsburg, Oct. 28, 1997. Credit: Reuters


Jiang Zemin waves to supporters from the steps of his jet at Chicago's O'Hare airport before departing for Houston, Oct. 23, 2002. Credit: Reuters

UPDATED at  3:55 P.M. EST on 2022-11-30

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.

In this Nov. 14, 2012 photo, former Chinese President Jiang Zemin attends the closing ceremony for the 18th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. Credit: Lee Jin-man/AP
In this Nov. 14, 2012 photo, former Chinese President Jiang Zemin attends the closing ceremony for the 18th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. Credit: Lee Jin-man/AP

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

ENG_CHN_JiangZemin_Death_11302022 102.JPG
In this Oct. 18, 2017 photo, former Chinese President Jiang Zemin checks his wristwatch during the opening session of China's 19th Party Congress in Beijing, China. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

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.

UPDATED to include reaction from experts and a rights group.

Written by Paul Eckert.


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Dec 01, 2022 09:18 AM

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