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China's ex-leader Jiang Zemin, an influential reformer, has died at 96

Chinese President Jiang Zemin sings a selection from "Beijing Opera" during a dinner hosted by the Chinese community of Los Angeles 02 November at a Los Angeles hotel. Jiang concluded a eight-day visit to the US with meetings with business and political leaders in Los Angeles. AFP PHOTO Hector MATA (Photo by HECTOR MATA / AFP) (Photo by HECTOR MATA/AFP via Getty Images)
Chinese President Jiang Zemin sings a selection from "Beijing Opera" during a dinner hosted by the Chinese community of Los Angeles 02 November at a Los Angeles hotel. Jiang concluded a eight-day visit to the US with meetings with business and political leaders in Los Angeles. AFP PHOTO Hector MATA (Photo by HECTOR MATA / AFP) (Photo by HECTOR MATA/AFP via Getty Images)

Updated November 30, 2022 at 11:31 AM ET

Former Chinese leader and general secretary of the country's ruling Communist Party Jiang Zemin died at the age of 96, state news agency Xinhua announced Wednesday. The cause of death was leukemia and multiple organ failure.

Jiang was a divisive and colorful figure at the forefront of political life for 15 years. Even after retirement, analysts say, he exercised influence — and in his last years, served as a counterweight to China's current leader, Xi Jinping.

The announcement came at a highly sensitive time in China as the authorities grapple with a rash of street protests expressing deep unhappiness with President Xi Jinping's signature "zero COVID" policy as well as other issues.

In China, mourning can turn political. The death in April 1989 of purged reformist party boss Hu Yaobang triggered weeks of protests centered on Tiananmen Square. The army was eventually called in to crush the demonstrations, killing hundreds if not thousands of people.

That year, Jiang got his break to be party leader in the aftermath of the chaos of the student-led protests centered on Tiananmen Square.

China was a pariah. Jiang was tasked with restoring stability within a divided Communist Party — and rehabilitating the image of a government that had ordered the military to fire on its own citizens.

In a 2000 interview, CBS journalist Mike Wallace called Jiang "a dictator, an authoritarian." And Jiang objected.

"Very frankly speaking, I don't agree with your point," the Chinese leader said in English. "Your way of describing what things are like in China is as absurd as what the Arabian Nights may sound like."

The "Shanghai gang"

At first, Jiang was thought to be a weak and transitional figure — a surprise choice for the next party leader — but few other officials were trusted and other, more liberal officials had been purged.

By 1993, he was also named head of state, in addition to party leader, and only relinquished his last title in 2004, all the while increasing his influence.

"He managed to steer China from great difficulties to great promise," says Jia Qingguo, the former dean of Peking University's School of International Studies. "China became — under his leadership — more open to the outside world, more liberal and China's economy became more dynamic."

Born on Aug. 17, 1926, in southern Jiangsu province to a prosperous family, Jiang joined an underground Communist cell in 1946. After the Communist Party won control of China, he was assigned to build relations with the Soviet Union and worked in the Stalin Automobile Factory in Moscow, where he learned to speak Russian.

An engineer by training, he rose through the ranks as a technocrat, eventually heading the Ministry of Electronics Industry in the 1980s.

But he remains most closely associated with the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai, where he was mayor before being plucked away to become overall head of the Communist Party. In Shanghai, he championed foreign investment and built up a network of proteges and associates he later helped promote up the ranks of party leadership — a power base analysts of Chinese elite politics termed "the Shanghai gang." Those connections later let Jiang retain significant influence long after he had officially left the top echelons of power.

The "Three Represents"

Jiang's main ideological innovation was a broad theory called the "Three Represents," officially enshrined into Communist Party orthodoxy in 2002. He wanted to allow entrepreneurs and capitalists to join the party, and his theory underpinned the ideological somersaults necessary to permit it.

"This has been instrumental in ensuring that the party remains relevant. But of course the nature of the party has changed tremendously," says Willy Lam, a senior fellow at U.S. think tank the Jamestown Foundation and one of the first people to write a biography of Jiang.

The move was controversial, but it ultimately ensured the party's continued grip on power by co-opting a rising class of self-made entrepreneurs and China's middle class. "It is no longer the party of the workers and peasants," Lam says. "What we have seen is a new aristocracy has risen up the ranks. It is now the party of the rich and powerful."

Jiang's ideological flexibility cemented his legacy of combining growing economic freedoms with the absence of meaningful political liberalization, though his term was marked by the relaxation of political controls on press and free expression.

"We were not afraid of any kind of punishment then for covering stories," said Alfred Wu, a political science professor at National University Singapore who was then a Chinese state media reporter. "The only advice from my senior editors was not to criticize Jiang himself."

An economic liberal, but not a political liberal

Yet despite his ties to policies known as "reform and opening" in the 1980s, Jiang was no political liberal himself. When student protests roared through the country in 1989, he sacked a well-known newspaper editor and supported the execution of three student demonstrators. A decade later, he ordered the mass arrests of adherents of Falun Gong, a spiritual sect.

His political longevity meant he presided over China during other pivotal historical moments whose implications are still felt today.

In 1997, Jiang oversaw the return of Hong Kong from British to Chinese control. Standing on the same stage as the then-Prince Charles of Britain, Jiang assured nervous residents that "Hong Kong residents shall enjoy various rights and freedoms according to law," under Chinese rule — an assurance critics say was eviscerated in 2020, when Beijing imposed a controversial national security law on the territory.

Later, Jiang fought to speed up China's entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 – bringing China in line with international legal norms, and forced it to open up hitherto-closed sectors of the economy.

His mark continues to be felt in China's military, which under his watch began an ambitious modernization effort to upgrade its weapons technology and management, an effort analysts credit with shaping it into a globally competitive fighting force now seen as a serious challenger to the American military dominance in Asia and feared by many to be threatening the democratic island of Taiwan.

In 2002, Jiang peacefully relinquished the title of party general secretary to his successor, Hu Jintao — the first and only orderly transition of power in Chinese Communist history. But he retained his position as chairman of the country's powerful Central Military Commission — the de facto commander in chief — until 2004.

A larger-than-life personality

In person, Jiang was known for his larger-than-life personality, often displaying a theatrical streak that entertained world leaders and frustrated his dour Communist colleagues.

"Back then, we all found him very annoying. Jiang had many flaws. He was attention-seeking, and liked performing," Zhang Ming, a retired political science professor in Beijing, told NPR several years ago.

Jiang delighted in quoting the Gettysburg Address in English and singing in public. During various state functions over the years, he danced cha-cha with then-Philippine President Fidel Ramos while delivering a rendition of Elvis Presley's Love Me Tender, picked a Hawaiian guitar while festooned with a flower lei, and waltzed to an accordion with the wife of French President Jacques Chirac.

With a wide grin, khaki pants hiked way above the waist and his trademark coke-bottle glasses, Jiang also became an unlikely pop culture icon among young Chinese born long after his party chairmanship ended. His resemblance to a cartoon amphibian spawned a generation of popular memes dubbed "toad worship" on Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat.

"Too simple, sometimes naïve," he chastised a Hong Kong reporter in 2000 — now a popular internet quip.

Jiang's rule "feels more and more in the past"

As cloistered leader, Jiang was never a man of the people, but Zhang, the retired professor, believes Jiang will be remembered fondly.

"In retrospect, we feel his era was alright. We miss it," Zhang said. "That is the tragedy of China. The country hasn't changed for the better, so we miss the past."

Increasingly, Jiang's rule feels more and more in the past as the market-oriented, internationally minded China he presided over crumbles under current party leader Xi Jinping, who has rebuilt absolute party control over Chinese society.

Images of Jiang impatiently checking his watch and snoozing as Xi Jinping laid out his vision for a "new era" of China during the 19th Party Congress, a national gathering of party representative, went viral in 2017.

China analysts say Jiang's political influence and health waned in his old age. In recent years, Xi purged Jiang's loyalists, especially in the military, once one of Jiang's political strongholds, through his controversial anti-corruption campaign.

Jiang was not present at the last party congress in October, where Xi secured a landmark third term in power. Rumors of Jiang's death have circled for years, but each time he would reappear in public days later.

This time, however, the rumors were true.

John Ruwitch contributed to this story. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.