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Jiang Zemin, the former Chinese leader who came to power after the quelling of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests and presided over the market-oriented changes that turned China into a global economic juggernaut, died of leukemia on Wednesday, state media said. He was 96.

Mr. Jiang retired as Communist Party chief in 2002, stepped down as president in 2003, and left as head of the party’s Central Military Commission the next year. Behind the scenes, he managed to wield substantial influence within the secretive party elite, installing allies in the leadership team of his successor, Hu Jintao. From retirement, party insiders say, he decisively backed Xi Jinping’s ascent to party leader.

Mr. Jiang made infrequent public appearances in recent years. He was shown on state television attending a Beijing parade marking Communist China’s 70th birthday in 2019, but notably missed the party’s centennial celebrations in 2021. The former leader also didn’t appear at the party’s twice-a-decade national congress in 2022, when Mr. Xi secured a third term as general secretary in a break from the 10-year leadership cycle his predecessor set.

A career technocrat trained in Russia, Mr. Jiang was plucked into the leadership at a time of acute crisis. The 1989 military assault on protesters in central Beijing’s Tiananmen Square—which left hundreds dead and was broadcast around the world—made China an international pariah, fractured the party and prompted calls within the government to halt economic reforms that had begun a decade earlier.

Party elders chose Mr. Jiang as general secretary in part because, as party boss of Shanghai, he had successfully quashed protests in the city earlier that year without the violence that shook the capital.

Initially dismissed as a transitional figure by many political analysts, Mr. Jiang stayed in power for nearly a decade and a half. Under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping, chief architect of the reform program and the party’s pre-eminent leader even in retirement, Mr. Jiang revitalized the economic liberalization effort, repaired relations with the U.S. and steered the world’s most populous nation back into the international community.

Under Mr. Jiang, China recovered Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and won the rights to host the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. All the while, Mr. Jiang maintained tight limits on political dissent.

Portly, wearing oversize glasses, and energetic even into his later years, Mr. Jiang was an animated public figure in contrast to his stolid successors. He loved music and tried to coax foreign leaders from President George W. Bush to Britain’s late Queen Elizabeth to sing with him. In meetings with Americans, he sometimes recited sections of the Gettysburg Address in accented English.

Mr. Jiang used his authority to enact bold economic policy initiatives. In moves spearheaded by his premier, Zhu Rongji, the government began dismantling vast parts of the state-owned economy in the second half of the 1990s. Tens of thousands of smaller, unprofitable state enterprises were closed down, depriving tens of millions of workers of a guaranteed job for life—“smashing the iron rice bowl” in the parlance of the time. A sweeping privatization of state-provided housing paved the way for a massive boom in construction and homeownership.

Mr. Jiang’s decision to take China into the WTO meant steamrolling the objections of powerful lobbies in state industry and agriculture. The political risk-taking paid off, reshaping the global economy and ushering in another decade of rapid Chinese growth. Foreign investment poured in, boosting the development of a world-class manufacturing sector.

China’s changes and breakneck growth strained the social fabric of what had recently been, in name at least, an egalitarian society. A new middle class began to take root, but social discontent also spiraled, with large protests by laid-off factory workers and farmers forced off their land for urban development.

Amid the social tumult, Mr. Jiang maintained the party’s chokehold on political power in sometimes brutal fashion. In 1998, his government detained scores of members of the China Democracy Party, wiping out a group newly founded by political activists.

An unexpected challenge came from an obscure spiritual movement, Falun Gong, which attracted millions of followers. After tens of thousands of them surrounded the Chinese leadership compound in Beijing in 1999, catching the leadership off-guard, Mr. Jiang banned the group and launched one of China’s broadest suppression campaigns in decades. Tens of thousands were detained and put through harsh deprogramming regimes. Some died in detention.

The largely uncompromising approach to dissent, which has continued under his successors, hampered Mr. Jiang in his dealings with Western governments, especially the U.S. At a news conference with Mr. Jiang during his October 1997 Washington visit, President Bill Clinton said China’s human-rights policy put it “on the wrong side of history.”

Mr. Jiang was the first of China’s top leaders who didn’t come from the generation of revolutionary fighters of Mao Zedong’s Long March—and the last to have joined the Communist Party before its rise to power in 1949.

Born Aug. 17, 1926, in the eastern city of Yangzhou, near Shanghai, Mr. Jiang joined the party as a student in the electrical-machinery department of Shanghai Jiaotong University in 1946, a year before graduating. He worked as a manager in factories making food and soap before going to Moscow in 1955 as a trainee at the Stalin Automobile Works.

From his return in 1956, he held increasingly senior jobs, rising to electronics-industry minister, before becoming mayor of Shanghai in 1985. He was promoted to party boss of the city in 1987 and joined the ranks of the party’s ruling Politburo.

Following the Tiananmen bloodshed in 1989, Mr. Jiang first sided with more conservative voices in Beijing. He eventually joined Deng, China’s paramount leader at the time, in calling for restarting the pro-market policy changes put on ice by the 1989 protests.

Mr. Jiang later acknowledged his timidity. “We wade across the river by feeling for stones because truth is a long road; nobody knows exactly what truth is,” he said, according to biographer Robert Lawrence Kuhn in “How China’s Leaders Think.”

Mr. Jiang saw maintaining steady relations with the U.S. as critical for China’s re-emergence. That commitment was tested in three crises with the U.S.: the Taiwan Strait tensions of 1995-96, in which China fired missiles off the island’s coast to warn it away from independence and the U.S. responded by deploying two aircraft carrier groups near the Taiwan Strait; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s bombing of China’s Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, which triggered anti-U.S. riots in Beijing; and the midair collision in 2001 of a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter that killed the Chinese pilot and left the U.S. crew temporarily imprisoned on the southern Chinese island of Hainan.

In each case Mr. Jiang initially took uncompromising positions that strained ties with Washington. Having protected himself politically at home, Mr. Jiang then tacked back to repair relations with the U.S.

Mr. Jiang sought immortality by elevating his political theories on a par with those of Marx, Mao and Deng. His “Three Represents” text, added to the party canon in 2002, provided ideological cover that let the party move beyond its avowed base of farmers and blue-collar workers to say it also represented “advanced forces of production”—code for business executives and professionals.

The way Mr. Jiang exited the political stage also left a stamp on Chinese politics. Though he relinquished his title as party head and president as expected in a long-planned leadership transition, he kept hold of his powerful role overseeing the military and used his allies to influence Mr. Hu’s presidency.

Those maneuvers, Chinese officials and party members say, hobbled Mr. Hu, made consensus more difficult to forge and led to a more divided, incremental approach to governance. The stasis, these officials and party members say, contributed to a worsening of economic imbalances, environmental degradation and political corruption.

Mr. Hu later decided to retire from all his posts at once, giving his successor, President Xi, the free hand he was denied in part by Mr. Jiang’s lingering influence.

Source: November 30, 2022 | By Charles Hutlzer