Former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, who led the country for a decade of rapid economic growth after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, died yesterday at the age of 96, prompting a wave of nostalgia for the more liberal times he oversaw.
Mr Jiang died in his home city of Shanghai of leukaemia and multiple organ failure, Xinhua news agency said, publishing a letter to the Chinese people by the ruling Communist Party, parliament, Cabinet and the military.
“Comrade Jiang Zemin’s death is an incalculable loss to our party and our military and our people of all ethnic groups,” the letter read, saying its announcement was with “profound grief”.
Mr Jiang’s death comes at a tumultuous time in China, where authorities are grappling with rare widespread street protests among residents fed up with heavy-handed Covid-19 curbs nearly three years into the pandemic. The zero-Covid policy is a hallmark or President Xi Jinping, who recently secured a third leadership term that cements his place as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong and has taken China in an increasingly authoritarian direction since replacing Jiang’s immediate successor, Hu Jintao.
China is also in the midst of a sharp economic slowdown exacerbated by zero-Covid.
Even though Mr Jiang put down student protests in Shanghai that were part of the wave of pro-democracy demonstrations that culminated in the bloody crackdown at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, some Chinese expressed nostalgia for his era as a time of optimism as well as hope for economic liberalisation and political freedom.
Mr Jiang, though he could have a fierce temper, also had an informal and even quirky side, sometimes bursting into song, reciting poems or playing musical instruments – in contrast to his buttoned-up successor Hu, as well as to Xi.
Many posted videos and pictures online of Mr Jiang’s meetings with former US president Bill Clinton, including one scene where the pair are all smiles as Mr Jiang conducted a military band for part of the Chinese national anthem.
Numerous users of China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform described the death of Mr Jiang, who remained influential after finally retiring in 2004, as the end of an era. “I’m very sad, not only for his departure, but also because I really feel that an era is over,” a Henan province-based user wrote.
“As if what has happened wasn’t enough, 2022 tells people in a more brutal way that an era is over,” a Beijing Weibo user posted.