Home / Opinion / Views /  Mint Explainer: Jiang Zemin, the leader who steered China's rise

Jiang Zemin, China’s former president, passed away at the age of 96 on Wednesday. His 13-year tenure as the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would prove to be enormously consequential. Mint analyses his life and legacy

1. Jiang was born in 1926 to a prosperous family in Eastern China. Trained in Western languages, literature and science, Jiang would retain a fondness for foreign cultures that was on display during his tenure at the helm of China. He notably launched into recitations of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in English, much to the astonishment of foreign guests.

2. He joined the CCP in 1946 and spent a long career as an engineer in China’s heavy industry sector. He spent time in the USSR in the 1950’s during the heyday of Sino-Soviet friendship.

3. Jiang rose steadily, if unremarkably, through the ranks of the CCP before his appointment as party secretary in charge of the ministry of electronics. From there, his rise was swift. Shortly after, he was made the mayor of Shanghai, a vital political post.

4. He came to the attention of leaders such as Deng Xiaoping for his handling of the protests in 1989 against high inflation and increasing corruption. Even as top leaders struggled to defuse the protests in Beijing, especially at Tiananmen Square, Jiang managed to disperse protestors in Shanghai.

5. After the Tiananmen Square massacre, a major shakeup within the CCP brought Jiang to the helm of Chinese politics. Initially, few expected much of him. He had very few political heavyweights in his corner and lacked the strong political networks necessary to survive the often deadly game of Chinese politics.

6. While Jiang was initially overshadowed by party elders like Deng Xiaoping who still wielded enormous influence, he consolidated his grip on power over time. His coterie of confidantes and adherents, known as the Shanghai clique, was promoted to key positions and would help him sideline rivals for power.

7. His achievements in office were significant. He helped rehabilitate China’s international image, built bridges with India and other Southeast Asian powers and took China into the World Trade Organisation despite the concerns of CCP conservatives. Hong Kong was also returned to China in 1997, during his tenure.

8. At home, he presided over the boom years of economic growth that saw China’s GDP and standard of living improve immensely. He was also responsible for the bloodless and relatively smooth transfer of power to a new generation of leaders when he demitted office in 2003.

9. However, his crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement was decried by human rights experts. China’s infamous “Great Firewall" and other forms of internet censorship were also developed during his time in office. Corruption became a daily affair in China and led to massive citizen discontent that threatened the CCP’s position.

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