Jiang Zemin, China’s former president who oversaw its accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001, died on Wednesday (Nov 30) in Shanghai, state media reported. He was 96.
Jiang’s absence from the 20th Communist Party congress in October, as well as the party’s centenary celebrations last year, were read as clear signs of ailing health.
He was last seen in public on Oct 1, 2019, taking his place among party elders invited to attend the 70th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and a military parade to mark the occasion.
Jiang, who served as the party’s general secretary from 1989 to 2002, was the first top leader not to have fought in Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution, which culminated in the creation of the People’s Republic following a civil war victory in 1949.
Jiang was Shanghai party chief when he was given the top job in June 1989, with Beijing in crisis mode after supreme leader Deng Xiaoping ordered a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy student protesters in Tiananmen Square, and a far-reaching purge inside the government and state targeting sympathisers of the failed movement.
Jiang’s promotion to the top came as the West turned its back on China over its violent handling of the demonstration, often labelled the Tiananmen crackdown.
But subsequent years saw him lead some of China’s most symbolic moments, marking the country’s further integration with the US-led global system and gaining higher status as a world power.
These included the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, when the city returned to Chinese sovereignty from British colonial rule, and China formally becoming a WTO member in 2001.
It was also in 2001, under Jiang’s watch, that Beijing secured host nation status for the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Jiang stepped down voluntarily in 2002 to hand over the helm to Hu Jintao, with China bearing witness to the first peaceful and orderly power transition in the party since 1949.
Jiang is remembered by many as a charismatic and confident figure, which made him stand out among other stiff and often inscrutable Chinese leaders.
At age 71, he made headlines for swimming and playing the ukulele in Hawaii, and trying out his skills at singing Peking opera, during a state visit to the US in 1997.
In a contentious interview conducted by 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace in 2000, Jiang tackled questions on controversial issues including the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989, the spying case involving Taiwanese American scientist Wen Ho Lee, and tensions across the Taiwan Strait, switching with ease between Chinese and English.