Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin has died at the age of 96, Chinese state media reported.
Jiang died at 12:13pm (04:13 GMT) on Wednesday from leukaemia and multiple organ failure in the city of Shanghai, the official Xinhua news agency said, publishing a joint letter to the Chinese people by the ruling Communist Party, parliament, cabinet and the military, announcing the death.
“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 the announcement was made with “profound grief”.
It described “our beloved Comrade Jiang Zemin” as an outstanding leader of high prestige, a great Marxist, statesman, military strategist and diplomat and a long-tested communist fighter.
Flags at major Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and government buildings in China and worldwide will be flown at half-mast, state media reported.
The order, from Jiang’s funeral arrangement committee, applies from Wednesday until the date of his funeral, yet to be announced, according to state broadcaster CCTV.
Jiang was plucked from obscurity to head the CCP after the bloody Tiananmen crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989, but broke the country out of its subsequent diplomatic isolation, mending fences with the United States and overseeing an unprecedented economic boom.
Jiang, who was China’s president from 1993 to 2003, saw the country through historic changes, including a revival of market-oriented reforms, the return of Hong Kong from British rule in 1997 and its entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. He also presided over the achievement of a long-cherished dream: winning the competition to host the Olympic Games after an earlier rejection.
Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu, reporting from Beijing, said that following the news of Jiang’s death, government officials have stressed “his Communist Party credentials when they talk about him – but he’s remembered among the people as so much more”.
“He couldn’t have been any more different to the rather straight-faced or serious officials that we often see in China today; very different to China’s current leader Xi Jinping, who’s sort of portrayed as an emperor.
“Jiang Zemin, by contrast, is seen as more of an every man,” Yu added. “He often spoke quite candidly and quite frequently to the press. He used English quite often, and he even gave entire speeches in English. He was fond of singing Italian songs in front of foreign dignitaries and it was well known that he played the piano, and would often make jokes when speaking publicly.”
Even as China opened to the outside, Jiang’s government stamped out dissent at home. It jailed human rights, labour and pro-democracy activists and banned the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which it viewed as a threat to the CCP\s monopoly on power.
Victor Gao, vice president of the Centre for China and Globalization, told Al Jazeera that “maintaining stability in China has always been the most important, overriding task”.
“Without stability, we cannot afford to significantly improve our economic situation and thus improve the living standards of the people,” Gao said from Beijing.
“I think the former leader also did a good job in maintaining stability, paving the way for China’s reconnection with the rest of the world and eventually the Chinese people benefitted from his wisdom, his dedication, sophistication, his cosmopolitanism and his eagerness to push for greater opening of China to the rest of the world.”
Although he was China’s head of state and chairperson of the CCP for 13 years, Jiang was never known for his vision, but rather acted as an administrator and compromise figure for different factions in the party.
Jiang seemed to have only reached the peak of his power after the changeover in 2002 to the leadership generation headed by Hu Jintao. For a long time, he pulled the strings as the “strong man” in the background. He was known among the people as “the senior” (Zhangzhe).
Jiang gave up his last official title in 2004 but remained a force behind the scenes in the wrangling that led to the rise of Xi, the current president, who took power in 2012.
Xi has stuck to Jiang’s mix of economic liberalisation and strict political controls.
Jiang had faded from public sight and last appeared publicly alongside current and former leaders atop Beijing’s Tiananmen gate at a 2019 military parade celebrating the party’s 70th anniversary in power. He was absent from a major party congress last month where former leaders are given seats in recognition of their service.