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Former President Jiang Zemin, who guided China’s rise, dies

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BEIJING—Former President Jiang Zemin, who led China out of isolation after the army crushed the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989 and supported economic reforms that led to a decade of explosive growth, died Wednesday. He was 96.

Jiang died of leukemia and multiple organ failure in Shanghai, where he was a former mayor and Communist Party secretary, state TV and the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

A surprise choice to lead a divided Communist Party after the 1989 turmoil, Jiang saw China through history-making changes including a revival of market-oriented reforms, the return of Hong Kong from British rule in 1997 and Beijing’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001.

Even as China opened to the outside, Jiang’s government stamped out dissent. It jailed human rights, labor and pro-democracy activists and banned the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which the ruling party saw as a threat to its monopoly on power.

Jiang gave up his last official title in 2004 but remained a force behind the scenes in the wrangling that led to the rise of current President Xi Jinping, who took power in 2012.

Xi has tightened political control, crushed China’s little remaining dissent and reasserted the dominance of state industry.

FILE – APEC leaders wearing the traditional “barong tagalog” from the Philippines wave during a group photo in Subic Bay, west of Manila. From left: then Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Brunei’s sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, then Chilean President Eduardo Frei, then Chinese President Jiang Zemin, then Hong Kong Financial Secretary Donald Tsang, and then Indonesian President Suharto., Nov. 25, 1996. Chinese state TV said Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, that Jiang has died at age 96. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez, File)

Rumors that Jiang might be in declining health spread after he missed a ruling party congress in October at which Xi, China’s most powerful figure since at least the 1980s, broke with tradition and awarded himself a third five-year term as leader.

Jiang was on the verge of retirement as Shanghai party leader in 1989 when he was drafted by then-paramount leader leader Deng Xiaoping to pull together the party and nation.

He succeeded Zhao Ziyang, who was dismissed by Deng due to his sympathy for the student-led Tiananmen Square protesters and was held under house arrest until his 2005 death.

In 13 years as party general secretary, China’s most powerful post, Jiang guided the country’s rise to economic power by welcoming capitalists into the ruling party and pulling in foreign investment after China joined the WTO. China passed Germany and then Japan to become the second-largest economy after the United States.

Jiang captured a political prize when Beijing was picked as the site of the 2008 Summer Olympics after failing in an earlier bid.

FILE – then Chinese President Jiang Zemin plays Mozart’s original piano during his visit at the birth place of famed Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Salzburg, Austria, March 30 1999. Chinese state TV said Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, that Jiang has died at age 96. (AP Photo, File)

A former soap factory manager, Jiang capped his career with the communist era’s first orderly succession, handing over his post as party leader in 2002 to Hu Jintao, who also took the ceremonial title of president the following year.

Jiang tried to hold onto influence by staying on as chairman of the Central Military Commission, which controls the party’s military wing, the 2 million-member People’s Liberation Army. He gave up that post in 2004 following complaints he might divide the government.

Even after he left office, Jiang had influence over promotions through his network of proteges. He was said to be frustrated that Deng had picked Hu as the next leader, blocking Jiang from installing his own successor. But Jiang was considered successful in elevating allies to the party’s seven-member Standing Committee, China’s inner circle of power, when Xi became leader in 2012. Portly and owlish in oversize glasses, Jiang was an ebullient figure who played the piano and enjoyed singing, in contrast to his more reserved successors, Hu and Xi.

Image credits: AP/Ng Han Guan

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