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Jiang Zemin: Leader who put China on path to becoming global superpower

On one hand Jiang would speak the language of progressivism and liberalism, famously quoting Abraham Lincoln. On the other, he would ruthlessly do anything to maintain his and his party’s power in the country.

Then China President Jiang Zemin poses in front of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, November 30, 1996. (Reuters/File)

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Wednesday announced the passing of former Chinese President and General Secretary of the CCP, Jiang Zemin. In a letter written to the citizens of the country (originally in Chinese), the CCP said “Our beloved Comrade Jiang Zemin suffered from leukemia combined with multiple organ failure, and the rescue failed. He died in Shanghai at 12:13 on November 30, 2022 at the age of 96.”

The Indian Express looks back at the life and career of Jiang Zemin, and the long lasting impact he had on China.

Rise to power

Born in 1926, Jiang Zemin was an electrical engineer by trade, working in automobile factories. Joining the CCP in his college days, he rose through the ranks of the party due to his charisma and the immense confidence he exuded. He became the mayor of Shanghai in 1985, and subsequently the CCP secretary of the city. At that time, Shanghai had become China’s new economic center, a symbol for the new China that the post-Mao CCP envisioned. His position in Shanghai became a springboard for his entry into national politics in the late 1980s.

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A firm believer in Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, Jiang was from a new breed of leaders who had first-hand experienced the disastrous effects of Maoist policies. Hence, his brand of socialism was far more reformist and forward-thinking, with an emphasis on creating a strong market economy.

After the Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent massacre, there was a lot of churn in the CCP. More liberal leaders like Zhao Ziyang were removed from positions of power on account of being “too conciliatory” to the leaders. At the same time, many hardliners did not have the economic vision or the political dexterity to lead the country in the aftermath of unprecedented unrest as well as economic stagnation. Jiang was chosen by Deng as a compromise candidate for the post of general secretary. He was tough on dissent yet fully committed towards creating a socialist market economy. Within three years, he would become the most powerful man in the CCP and the president of the PRC.

A market Marxist

Jiang’s big departure from the previous Deng regime was in his understanding of the importance of ideological work that needed to accompany the economic reforms. If the CCP was to maintain its stronghold over the country and prevent another Tiananmen Square from happening, it was imperative to create a new vocabulary and ideology that could reconcile its socialist goals with the market economy China was headed to become. After becoming the president of the PRC in 1993, he renewed focus on propaganda and political thoughtwork.

His economic focus was to create a stable economy and address issues of unemployment and stagflation. To do this, he took the previous regime’s reforms to their logical end, fully opening up China to the world. It is under his leadership that the Chinese manufacturing sector became the global behemoth that it is today: he felt that it is only through the integration of China into global networks of trade and commerce that its domestic economy could be boosted. Reforms he made would start China on its road to becoming an economic superpower. He won China its inclusion into the World Trade Organisation in 2001 after years of negotiation.


With his “Three Represents’ theory that he got written into the constitution of the CCP, Jiang Zemin modernised the party and the communist movement. He moved beyond a political base of workers and the peasantry, and wooed intellectuals and the newly emerging business class. The theory articulated a vision for the relationship between the party and the people. Among other things, it allowed ‘capitalists’ to join the CCP “as long as they participated in honest labour.”

His critics would be dismayed at his economic and ideological moves, seeing his direction as a betrayal of Marxist principles.

A political pragmatist

Jiang’s attitude towards dissent was unlike his attitude towards the economy. His brutal crackdown on the Falun Gong, a new spiritual movement that had gained immense popularity in China and abroad in the 1990s, is often cited as an example of his intolerance. During his tenure from 1993 to 2003, there were numerous other charges of human rights violations against him, notably in Tibet.


It was this dichotomy that made Jiang such a powerful leader with a deep impact on Chinese history. On one hand he would speak the language of progressivism and liberalism, famously quoting Abraham Lincoln. On the other, he would ruthlessly do anything to maintain his and his party’s power in the country.

He was the ultimate pragmatist. But he had this great ability to couch his pragmatism in ideological terms. He was intolerant towards dissent, persecuted minorities, centralised power, created conditions for rising inequality. But at the same time, he is remembered very favourably in multiple circles due to his demeanour and his charismatic words. He managed to shed the image of the old grumpy communist, ideologically orthodox to a fault and out of touch with reality. Instead, he seemed nicer, more approachable and more flexible.

His critics would often call him a ‘flower pot,’ a Chinese reference to someone who is all talk and no action. But his legacy today is one of ushering forth a new generation in China. As the 21st century dawned, so had a new China, undemocratic but an economic powerhouse that would become the manufacturing centre of the globalised world. Jiang oversaw this emergence.

Jiang retired in 2002 as General Secretary, in 2003 as President, but was in power as Chairman of the Central Military Commission till 2004 — two years into Hu Jintao’s tenure as General Secretary, thus preventing the latter from exercising power effectively.

First published on: 30-11-2022 at 16:27 IST
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