The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s former president Jiang Zemin, who ruled after Tiananmen, dies at 96

He presided over a period of extraordinary economic growth that by some measures tripled the size of China’s economy

Chinese President Jiang Zemin delivers a speech during the Hong Kong handover ceremony on June 30, 1997. (Kimimasa Mayama/AP)
14 min

Jiang Zemin, a pliant Chinese technocrat who was unexpectedly hoisted to the summit of power in Beijing after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and who led the world’s last major communist party as it harnessed capitalism to turn China into a global economic player, died Nov. 30 in Shanghai. He was 96.

The cause was leukemia and organ failure, state broadcaster China Central Television announced.

Mr. Jiang was widely viewed as a weak, transitional figure when he first moved into Zhongnanhai, Beijing’s version of the Kremlin, but he outmaneuvered potential rivals to lead China for 14 years. He presided over a period of extraordinary economic growth that by some measures tripled the size of China’s economy, flooded American stores with Chinese goods and made China the United States’ biggest foreign creditor.

For China, former president Jiang’s death comes amid growing frustration

On Mr. Jiang’s watch, China sailed through Asia’s 1997-98 financial storm and, in 2001, joined the World Trade Organization, a turning point in the country’s rise as an economic power. Through wrenching change that smashed the “iron rice bowl” of millions of factory workers, China trimmed and revitalized a huge state sector that today forms the backbone of an economy that is responsive to market stimulus but is ultimately controlled by the Communist Party.

Jiang Zemin, who died Nov. 30 at age 96, presided over a period of extraordinary economic growth that by some measures tripled the size of China’s economy. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Mr. Jiang shepherded China’s relations with the United States through a series of crises, including the bitter aftermath of the Tiananmen killings, a 1996 confrontation over Taiwan that kindled fears of armed conflict, and America’s 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in the Serbian capital of Belgrade during the fighting over Kosovo.

But perhaps Mr. Jiang’s most striking achievement in office — first as general secretary of the ruling Communist Party and then also as president — was the manner of his leaving it: He retired, reluctantly but peacefully, in the first orderly transfer of political power in China since Mao Zedong’s 1949 communist revolution. Purges, often accompanied by violence, were previously the norm. Mr. Jiang gave up his last senior post, chairmanship of the party’s Central Military Commission, in 2004, completing the transition to Hu Jintao as president and party leader.

Mr. Jiang’s death comes during another test for China’s leadership — a swell of protests that began over the government’s severe “zero covid” restrictions and expanded to include anger over censorship and political repression.

In the past, the deaths of former leaders have often been times of turbulence for the Communist Party, when internal division and power struggles can break out into broader social unrest. The death of reform-minded leader Hu Yaobang in April 1989 was a trigger for the protests that eventually gripped Tiananmen Square.

For China, Jiang's death comes at turbulent time

Mr. Jiang, a former electrical engineer who came to prominence as mayor and then party chief in Shanghai, took charge in Beijing as communism crumbled across Eastern Europe. He took over a party divided and discredited by the Tiananmen bloodshed. His two immediate predecessors as party boss, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, had been purged. Mr. Jiang’s elevation was clouded by doubts about its legality: He was initially selected not by the ruling Politburo but by a small, geriatric group of nominally retired party elders.

“I felt as if I were standing on the brink of a deep ravine,” the pudgy, bespectacled Mr. Jiang told a visiting Yale University scholar in 1989.

His 14-year tenure at the apex of power confounded predictions that he and the party he led were destined — like Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet party — for oblivion. He not only survived China’s treacherous political currents but also halted at China’s borders the global forces that, by the end of 1991, had overthrown communism in Moscow and across the former Soviet empire.

Mr. Jiang’s principal successes, particularly the economic ones, were to a large degree the work of more dynamic underlings, especially his no-nonsense prime minister, Zhu Rongji. But it was Mr. Jiang who put Zhu and others in office and who kept the leadership together, avoiding the splintering that in the past had often led to mayhem.

Mr. Jiang entrenched the Communist Party as China’s only political force, opening its ranks to the burgeoning private business sector while eradicating all direct challenges to its monopoly on power. He scoffed at democracy as a Western import unsuited to China, and he launched a series of campaigns against dissent, most notably a brutal assault on the quasi-religious Falun Gong movement. The signature slogan of the Jiang era — “Stability overrides everything” — was enforced with even more vigor by his successors.

Mr. Jiang’s stern emphasis on order contrasted sharply with his often jovial public persona. A music lover who played the piano and the erhu, a Chinese stringed instrument, he often broke into song in public, particularly when traveling abroad. His repertoire ranged from one of Joseph Stalin’s favorite Russian ballads, “Daleko, Daleko,” to Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender.” Russian President Boris Yeltsin, serenaded by Mr. Jiang during a meeting in 1997, joked that “we have been deprived of a great opera star.”

An economic shift

For Mr. Jiang, one-party rule was not so much a matter of Marxist ideology as the guarantor of China’s future prosperity. Though still nominally socialist, the party under Mr. Jiang increasingly resembled, at least in its goals, the ruling parties of capitalist Asian nations in the 1960s and 1970s. It became a vehicle for development dominated by elite economic interests.

To justify this shift, Mr. Jiang in 2000 promoted what he called the “Three Represents.” Later enshrined in the constitution, this new doctrine decreed that the party must represent “advanced productive forces in society,” including wealthy entrepreneurs, a break with the traditional emphasis on workers and peasants.

Mr. Jiang stoked Chinese nationalism. Chinese youth, he said, should follow the example of Zhu Ziqing, a writer from his Yangtze River hometown who, gravely ill, died after refusing the sustenance offered by American-supplied grain in the 1940s. Mr. Jiang also ordered a Shanghai film studio to develop Chinese alternatives to Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

While decrying the West and its ways, Mr. Jiang often recalled how, as a schoolboy, he studied the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. In a 1986 meeting with restive Shanghai students and in a 2000 interview with CBS’s Mike Wallace, he recited from memory bits of the Gettysburg Address. He liked to show off his heavily accented English. He also spoke passable Russian and some Romanian.

Though promoted and initially protected by Deng Xiaoping, China’s preeminent leader until his death in 1997, Mr. Jiang never enjoyed the undisputed authority and prestige of either Deng or Mao. This was in part a result of his age: Mr. Jiang was still a boy when Mao and Deng took part in the 1930s Long March, the crucible of revolutionary legitimacy. Mr. Jiang launched his career in 1947 with a job maintaining diesel engines for an American-owned factory in Shanghai that produced Pretty Lady ice pops.

The ‘flower vase’

As the “core of the third generation” of leaders, Mr. Jiang — again in contrast to Mao and Deng — rose through the party hierarchy not by asserting firm views of his own but by shifting his position to fit the moment. As Shanghai boss in the 1980s, he became known as the “flower vase” — decorative but lacking substance. Mr. Jiang himself preferred another label: Mr. Tiger Balm, a reference to a soothing Chinese ointment.

When student protesters took to the streets in Shanghai in 1986 and again in 1989, Mr. Jiang avoided using extreme force and at times adopted a conciliatory tone. But once formally installed in Beijing after the Tiananmen massacre, he defended the army's assault on unarmed protesters, in keeping with the party line.

He showed no sympathy for his ousted predecessor, Zhao, whom he previously supported with zeal. Held under house arrest until his death in 2005, Zhao wrote repeatedly to Mr. Jiang begging to be allowed to leave his home to play golf and attend funerals. Mr. Jiang never replied, according to “Prisoner of State,” a 2009 book based on tapes that Zhao made during his post-purge travails.

Mr. Jiang’s greatest talent throughout his career was probably the ability to sense and follow the prevailing wind. It was a skill that discouraged boldness.

When conservatives opposed to free markets gained ground after the Tiananmen bloodshed, Mr. Jiang did little to resist until Deng, gravely ill with Parkinson’s disease, led the way. Mr. Jiang then quickly picked up the baton, zealously promoting China’s “socialist market economy.”

Though gregarious, Mr. Jiang was a master of stiff, jargon-laded speeches. In his first meeting with President Bill Clinton in 1993, he delivered a long, leaden lecture, prompting Clinton, who could not get a word in, to joke, “I should have brought my saxophone along to get some practice in,” according to a biography of Mr. Jiang by American Sinologist Bruce Gilley.

In a diary entry leaked to the British press, Britain’s Prince Charles, who met Mr. Jiang at the 1997 ceremony to transfer sovereignty over Hong Kong to China, described the Chinese leader and his entourage as “appalling old waxworks.”

Mr. Jiang sometimes came across as a buffoon, an image reinforced by his habit of combing his dyed jet-black hair at public gatherings. (He stopped after a particularly embarrassing combing in front of the Spanish king.) Chinese intellectuals snickered at his often-pompous pronouncements and at efforts by the propaganda apparatus to present him as a great thinker in the mold of Mao.

Mr. Jiang tried, unsuccessfully, to have himself named chairman, a Mao-era title, and endorsed the publication of several hagiographic biographies. Still, many now remember the Jiang era as one of relative tolerance of limited debate, at least when compared with the chilly intolerance of public dissent in China today.

A diligent student

Born on Aug. 17, 1926, in the Yangtze River city of Yangzhou, west of Shanghai, Mr. Jiang was the third of five children. His father was a writer and a part-time electrician. Two of his uncles joined the early communist underground. When one of the uncles was killed, his widow adopted Mr. Jiang as her son, an arrangement that Beijing propagandists would later use to boost Mr. Jiang’s thin revolutionary credentials, hailing him as the son of a “communist martyr.”

A diligent pupil, Mr. Jiang was admitted to Yangzhou Middle School, one of China’s best and most competitive schools. He studied English and read Leo Tolstoy, Victor Hugo and other European writers in translation. He also immersed himself in Chinese literature, particularly patriotic writings that lamented China’s weakness in the face of European colonial powers and Japan.

In 1943, Mr. Jiang enrolled as an engineering student at Central University in Nanjing, a city then under Japanese occupation during World War II. Official Chinese biographies often omit Mr. Jiang’s studies in occupied Nanjing and maintain that he was at the time a dedicated communist engaged in student activism against Japan. Others say Mr. Jiang joined the Communist Party no earlier than 1946, a year after Japan’s defeat, while a student in Shanghai. He graduated a year later and went to work for the American-owned Hai Ning Co., a food producer.

In December 1949, two months after Mao declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Mr. Jiang married Wang Yeping, a young woman he’d known in Yangzhou. They had two sons. Sent to Manchuria in 1954 to work as an engineer, he joined a major project to establish a Chinese auto industry with technical assistance from the Soviet Union. After a crash course in Russian, he spent a year in Moscow at the Stalin Auto Works.

After his return to China, Mr. Jiang confronted in 1957 the first post-revolution spasm of Maoist madness — a nationwide purge of “rightists.” As a low-level party functionary, he joined in, apparently reluctantly, and helped pack off several colleagues for “reeducation.” Mr. Jiang’s sister, a teacher, was branded a “rightist,” too.

“Jiang was not a party hard-liner; he was simply learning to survive in Mao’s China,” Gilley wrote in the 1998 biography “Tiger on the Brink.”

Moving up

Reassigned from Manchuria to Shanghai in 1962, Mr. Jiang became head of the Electrical Equipment Research Institute. A work trip to Hong Kong provided his first glimpse of the capitalist world. A period of relative calm was soon disrupted by the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and raged for nearly a decade. Mr. Jiang got caught up in the convulsion, but he managed to avoid the physical abuse suffered by many others. To fend off accusations of being “bourgeois,” he had his hair cropped to a revolutionary brush cut.

By the late 1970s, the storm had calmed. China was exhausted, traumatized and desperately poor. Deng, who had reemerged after being purged from the leadership, carried out a program called the “Four Modernizations.” Mr. Jiang was assigned to a Beijing team of officials charged with setting up “special economic zones,” enclaves of thinly disguised capitalism along China’s coast.

After other bureaucratic posts in Beijing, Mr. Jiang moved back to Shanghai in 1985 as the city’s mayor. He promised “less empty talk and more concrete actions,” but produced only mixed results. The metropolis, ravaged by decay and revolutionary turmoil, was a shambles. Skilled at currying favor with Zhao and other gung-ho reformers then ascendant in Beijing, Mr. Jiang was promoted to Shanghai party secretary, the city’s top position, and also to the Politburo.

In 1989, the mood soured dramatically. A surge in inflation, brought about by attempts to lift price controls, put Zhao, the national party boss in Beijing, on the defensive. Students, upset over squalid living conditions and the conspicuous wealth of corrupt party officials, began to stir in anger.

Mr. Jiang, sensing that, within the party, the tide was turning in favor of conservative forces, shut down Shanghai’s most open-minded journal, the World Economic Herald. He then delivered a severe blow to Zhao, his former patron, by holding Wan Li, a Zhao ally and head of China’s rubber-stamp legislature, incommunicado at a Shanghai guesthouse. Mr. Jiang’s actions delighted those pressing for a military response to the student-led unrest.

In May 1989, as protests in China swelled, with more than 1 million people flooding into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the victors of a tumultuous power struggle declared martial law. They secretly called Mr. Jiang to Beijing, where he was informed that he had been chosen to replace Zhao, who had opposed calling in the army and had been placed under house arrest.

In late June 1989, nearly three weeks after the People’s Liberation Army stormed into Tiananmen Square, Mr. Jiang’s elevation was made public. Abandoning his usual Western clothes and genial manner, he appeared on television wearing a Mao suit. He vowed to “ferret out” and “harshly punish all plotters, organizers and behind-the-scenes manipulators of the rebellion.”

Andrew Higgins is a former Asia correspondent for The Washington Post. Christian Shepherd contributed to this report.