During his 13-year tenure as general secretary of the Communist Party of China, the highest authority in the world’s most populous nation, Jiang Zemin hardly fitted the image of a ruthless autocrat.
A player of the Chinese flute and the traditional double stringed erhu, with large owlish glasses and trousers often hitched well above his navel, Jiang’s flair for regaling world leaders with impromptu song and dance performances became the stuff of diplomatic legend.
At a state banquet for then US president George W Bush in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Jiang belted out a rendition of “O Sole Mio” before twirling across the dance floor with first lady Laura Bush. He could recite the Gettysburg address in English, enjoyed Romanian poetry and danced hula with Hawaiian schoolchildren.
His jovial performances belied the toughness of a politician who was never supposed to be more than an interim leader of China.
Within China he will be remembered chiefly as a pragmatist who allowed capitalists and other former “class enemies” into the Communist party and became the party’s first leader to transfer control in an orderly way to a successor, institutionalising term limits for Chinese leaders that Deng Xiaoping introduced to a system with few formal checks on power.
But that legacy has been erased by current president Xi Jinping, who in October threw out Jiang’s rule book by sealing an unprecedented third term as party leader. Jiang was not shy about meddling during the administrations of his successor Hu Jintao, but in his later years he could do little to counter Xi’s concentration of power.
Born in Yangzhou, in eastern China’s Jiangsu Province in 1926, Jiang was mostly brought up by an aunt, the widow of a “revolutionary martyr” who had been killed while working for the party during the war against Japan. This unimpeachable family political background would later become a considerable asset.
In 1943 he became involved in a low-key way in underground student protest while at Shanghai’s Jiaotong University, and in April 1946 he joined the Communist party.
After the 1949 revolution he became an assistant engineer at a Shanghai ice cream factory where he climbed rapidly through the ranks. Six years later he was sent to study at Moscow’s Stalin Automobile plant, returning to a role as a manager at a vehicle production factory in China’s north-east.
By the early 1980s Jiang was firmly part of a new generation of technocrats swept into leading positions by Deng, then supreme leader, as the diminutive party veteran steered China away from the ultra-leftist economic policies promoted by late chair Mao Zedong.
By 1982, he was head of the Ministry for Electrical Industry. Three years later Jiang was made mayor of Shanghai, later becoming party secretary of China’s most important commercial city.
His rise to the pinnacle of political power came about in the turmoil of the pro-democracy demonstrations centred on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Jiang was summoned from Shanghai by Deng just days before troops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in Beijing on June 3 and 4, 1989.
Having previously managed to appear tough on pro-democracy protests in Shanghai without resorting to bloodshed, his selection as the party’s next leader was seen as a compromise between hardliners and more liberal party stalwarts. Later in June he was formally appointed the party’s general secretary.
Although he was not directly involved in the decision to send in the troops to clear demonstrators from Tiananmen Square, he staunchly defended the move and opposed any re-examination of the events.
Ultimate power, however, still resided with Deng and the baton of leadership was only truly passed when he died in 1997. Jiang engineered the exit of Deng’s elderly cohort and by 1998, the first Chinese communist leader without a military background felt confident enough to order the armed forces to withdraw from many of their often highly lucrative business activities. By taking on powerful military interests, he demonstrated his grip on power and promoted reform of the People’s Liberation Army into a more modern and effective fighting force.
Jiang’s ruthlessness in ousting rivals helped him consolidate power and push through other important reforms — including the commercialisation and partial privatisation of the vast state-owned enterprise sector, China’s accession to the World Trade Organization and the opening of party membership to capitalists.
He also oversaw a brutal crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement, a mystical Buddhist sect that grew popular as Jiang dismantled the “iron rice bowl” of communist times. Party leaders believed it had the potential to challenge their monopoly on power.
During his tenure, Jiang was seen as business friendly, often granting audiences to chief executives of multinational companies and encouraging foreign trade and investment as well as a policy of rapid economic growth at all costs.
This policy bias laid the foundation for more than a decade of supercharged growth. It also brought worsening income inequality, regional disparities, environmental degradation and growing social unrest.
Jiang, like Deng, proved reluctant to give up power altogether. He relinquished the roles of president and party secretary to Hu Jintao, a successor first anointed by Deng, in what was billed by many as the regime’s first orderly transfer of power. But he held on to the chairmanship of the powerful military commission until 2004.
Jiang, with his relatively consensus-driven leadership style, is likely to be remembered as a contrast to his more dictatorial predecessors and to Xi.
“When compared with Xi Jinping’s hardline repression today . . . we look back wistfully on Jiang Zemin’s rule as relatively liberal and tolerant politically, socially and economically,” wrote Sinologist David Shambaugh in a 2021 book on Chinese leaders.
In recent years, Jiang became the subject of an irreverent online appreciation movement among young Chinese known as mo ha or “toad worship”, a reference to his perceived resemblance to a toad.
The trend involves circulating video clips of well-known Jiang moments, including one in 2000 when he broke into English to berate some Hong Kong journalists for being “too simple, sometimes naive” after a question about Beijing’s role in the former British colony’s leadership.
While the trend started in the 2010s as simple humour, in the past few years the online reminders of Jiang’s rule have taken on a sense of favourable contrast with Xi’s era.
Jiang’s death comes at a tense moment for Xi, who has in recent days been the target of rare public protests around China against his “zero-Covid” policies. The 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square were themselves sparked by the passing of an ousted but popular former party chief, Hu Yaobang.
Jiang is survived by his wife, Wang Yeping, and two sons, Jiang Mianheng and Jiang Miankang. He also leaves a physical legacy to his penchant for music and song: the national opera house complex just off Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, known colloquially as “The Egg”.
Shortly before The Egg’s official opening in late 2007, Jiang became the first solo singer to take its stage, crooning parts of a western opera and a Peking opera for theatre staff, just as he had once serenaded heads of state.