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ABC News

Jiang Zemin, former Chinese president, dies at 96

Former Chinese president Jiang Zemin has died at the age of 96 from leukaemia and multiple organ failure.

Mr Jiang died in Shanghai about noon on Wednesday, China's official Xinhua news agency said.

Plucked from obscurity to head China's ruling Communist Party after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, the former president was initially expected to be just another transitional figurehead, destined to be a footnote in history.

Yet Mr Jiang confounded the naysayers, chalking up a list of achievements after breaking China out of diplomatic isolation in the post-Tiananmen era, mending fences with the United States and overseeing an unprecedented economic boom.

He was last seen in public in October 2019 among other former leaders watching a military parade at Tiananmen Square marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

Under Mr Jiang, China weathered the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and won the bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

He counted among his proudest achievements the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 after more than 150 years of British rule, even if the territory's return had been brokered by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1984.

More significant probably was his "Three Represents", a progressive theory with a puzzling name, which helped shape modern China by inviting entrepreneurs — once hounded as the running dogs of capitalism — to join the party.

Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, told the ABC Mr Jiang represented an important era for China because he was the executor of Deng Xiaoping's reform and opening-up policy — a foundation of the country's economic development.

"Today marks the official ending of the era of China's reform and opening up," Dr Wu said.

"During the Jiang Zemin era, there was hope in the hearts of Chinese people that China would move toward a more open and internationally connected path.

"Although he was the leader of the Communist regime, he led China to a more palatable image on the international stage.

"The wolf-warrior diplomacy and internal economic downturn could make Chinese people nostalgic for the past, as well as for the past leader. This is a threat to the current communist regime."

Mixed approach to Taiwan relations

Mr Jiang had a hard-line policy on Taiwan, which was highlighted by Beijing's firing of missiles before Taiwan's first presidential election in 1996, setting a hostile tone for cross-strait relations for more than a decade.

Paradoxically, Mr Jiang also consolidated the CCP's policy of "peaceful reunification" with Taiwan during his time in power.

Dr Lennon Chang, president of the Australasian Taiwan Studies Association, told the ABC that Mr Jiang's policies on Taiwan was significantly different from the current president's.

"Mr Jiang believed the Taiwan issue should be solved by the Taiwanese people, but Mr Xi believes it should be decided by the Chinese people and he has not abandoned the idea of taking Taiwan by force," Dr Chang said.

"He said Chinese should not fight Chinese... [he was] one of the earliest leaders to have talked about peaceful reunification," he said.

"His death is the end of the era."

Despite rumours that he wanted to cling to power, Mr Jiang retired as party chief in 2002, handing the reins to Hu Jintao in China's first bloodless leadership transition since the 1949 revolution.

His style could surprise his guests, who expected a polished, urbane president but met instead a gregarious former automobile factory manager who would sometimes burst into song, recite poems or play musical instruments.

"He had a personal style that was sometimes a bit extravagant," Jean Pierre Cabestan, a politics professor at Hong Kong's Baptist University, said.

"I think he was more of a human being than Hu Jintao."

"Jiang Zemin was more ready to be natural, even though sometimes it could be perceived as vulgar, not very sophisticated."

In 1997, Mr Jiang made an ice-breaking trip to the United States.

"American poet [Henry] Longfellow once wrote, 'But to act that each tomorrow finds us farther than today … Act, act in the living present,'" he told then-US President Bill Clinton, speaking in English.

"We should go along with the trend of the times, and respond to the will of the people, and continue our march forward towards the establishment and development of a constructive, strategic partnership," he said.


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