As if there was not enough instability in China with the protests against the zero Covid policy, former president Jiang Zemin passed away this Wednesday. At the age of 96 and sick with leukemia, he died in Shanghai victim of a multiple failure of his organs, according to the official press. Due to his advanced age and his absence last month at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China, it was already known that he was in very delicate health. In fact, the last time he was seen in public was on October 1, 2019, during the parade in Beijing for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Of a reformist and liberal character, Jiang Zemin was the true architect of the China’s economic growth since the 1990s and, above all, after its integration into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, which boosted exports from the ‘global factory’. During his term as president, from 1993 to 2003, Beijing was also awarded the 2008 Olympic Games, which symbolized China’s modernization and its opening to the world.
But that does not mean that he was the ‘Chinese Gorbachev’, since he never considered carrying out democratic reforms or for the regime to cede power. Mayor of Shanghai in the mid-1980s, he was appointed general secretary of the Communist Party just after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, when Deng Xiaoping called on him to continue economic opening after the revolt’s brutal crushing. In 1999, Jiang himself would also resort to force to put down the demonstrations of the Falun Gong cultoutlawed and subjected to fierce persecution ever since.
Like a test of fate, the death of Jiang Zemin comes at the most difficult moment in recent decades for the regime, in full demonstrations against the restrictions and confinements of the zero Covid policy. It should not be forgotten that the death of another reformist leader, Hu Yaobang, triggered the popular revolt in 1989 that ended in the Tiananmen massacre. Now we will have to see how the Chinese take his death and how the Xi Jinping regime deals with the popular tributes that can be held, which in 1989 served to criticize the leaders of that time and demand democratic reforms.
To begin with, there are already many Chinese who, on social networks, nostalgically remember Jiang’s ‘golden era’ and his extrovert character. Dusted off from the archives, numerous videos circulate on the internet that show him singing and sharing jokes with other world leaders such as the then president of the United States, Bill Clinton.
But those vestiges of another China very different from the one of now are not reduced only to colorful anecdotes. Under the umbrella of the ‘economic miracle’ sponsored by Jiang Zemin, which reconciled China with the West after Tiananmen and elevated it to the rank of a superpower, a freer, more open and hopeful society flourished. The best evidence of this are the interviews he gave to American journalists such as Mike Wallace in ’60 Minutes’, in which he did not refuse to answer questions about Tiananmen and the fate of the ‘tank man’ who stood before a column of armored cars. Interviews like this are impossible today with Xi Jinping, the president of a China that is increasingly closed to the world. And, if it were granted to any foreign television, the questions would be agreed upon and that question would be vetoed.
Jiang Zemin reconciled China with the West after Tiananmen and elevated it to the rank of superpower
Similarly, Jiang Zemin was the first Chinese leader to step down after his tenure and ushered in a new generation, embodied by his successor, Hu Jintao. This collective leadership, established to prevent the excesses of Mao Zedong, has been overthrown by Xi Jinping. This was seen at the XX Congress of the Communist Party, where he not only remained in power, but even ordered the removal of Hu Jintao.
Along with the progress and modernization that he breathed into Chinese society, Jiang’s political contributions include the ‘triple representation theory’, by which he opened the Communist Party to the productive forces, that is, to the businessmen who had proliferated in China under the protection of its extraordinary economic growth. With Deng Xiaoping Already deceased, Jiang Zemin capitalized in 1997 on the return of the former British colony of Hong Kong and opened to the world a China that today is once again closed behind its Great Wall.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism