BEIJING: Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin died Wednesday at the age of 96, state media reported, hailing him as a great communist revolutionary who helped quell the 1989 pro-democracy protests.
Jiang took power in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, in which the military used deadly force to end the uprising, and led China towards its emergence as a global economic powerhouse.
The major bodies of China’s ruling Communist Party (CCP) bodies announced his death through a letter that expressed “profound grief.”
“Jiang Zemin passed away due to leukemia and multiple organ failure in Shanghai at 12:13 p.m. on Nov. 30, 2022, at the age of 96, it was announced on Wednesday,” Xinhua reported.
His death came after all medical treatments had failed, it said.
“Comrade Jiang Zemin was an outstanding leader… 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,” Xinhua quoted the letter as saying.
Jiang’s death comes as China sees a flare-up of anti-Covid lockdown protests that have morphed into calls for wider political freedoms — the most widespread since the 1989 pro-democracy rallies.
“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,” state broadcaster CCTV said on Wednesday.
Flags at half-mast
When Jiang replaced Deng Xiaoping as leader in 1989, China was still in the early stages of economic modernization.
By the time he retired as president in 2003, China was a member of the World Trade Organisation, Beijing had secured the 2008 Olympics, and the country was well on its way to superpower status.
Analysts say Jiang and his “Shanghai Gang” faction continued to exert influence over communist politics long after he left the top job.
Concerns over Jiang’s health had been raised when he did not attend the opening or closing ceremonies of last month’s Communist Party Congress.
State broadcaster CCTV said flags would be flown at half-mast at Chinese government buildings until the funeral, the date of which was not announced.
Chinese state media all posted the same black-and-white photo of a chrysanthemum on their official accounts on social media platform Weibo.
Jiang’s entry on Baidu Encyclopedia, a Chinese site similar to Wikipedia, also turned black-and-white.
In recent years, Jiang became an unlikely viral meme among millennial and Gen Z Chinese fans, who called themselves “toad worshipers” in thrall to his frog-like countenance and quirky mannerisms.
However, his legacy remains mixed and his critics numerous.
Jiang was criticized for failing to solve new problems created by China’s economic rebirth: rampant corruption and inequality, environmental degradation and state sector reforms which caused mass layoffs.
“There were a lot of corruption problems at the time, but he was a lively and jovial person… Maybe that’s the image people will keep of him,” Beijing resident Wang Yi told AFP.
“The media was also freer in his time to report critically on society’s problems.”
Jiang is survived by his wife Wang Yeping and two sons.