Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin died on Wednesday at the age of 96 as the nation endures mounting economic and social turmoil.
Jiang, who served from 1993 to 2003, succumbed to leukemia and multiple organ failure, according to a report from government-run outlet Xinhua News. A letter addressing the entirety of the Chinese Communist Party, over which Jiang presided as general secretary from 1989 to 2002, announced the news of his death.
According to Xinhua News, the letter described Jiang as “an outstanding leader enjoying high prestige acknowledged by the whole Party, the entire military and the Chinese people of all ethnic groups, a great Marxist, a great proletarian revolutionary, statesman, military strategist and diplomat, a long-tested communist fighter, and an outstanding leader of the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Under the tenure of Jiang, China continued market reforms that produced decades of rapid economic growth. The nation also regained control of Hong Kong and Macau, which were respectively managed by the United Kingdom and Portugal. Jiang initially emerged to power following the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, during which students participating in democracy demonstrations were massacred by soldiers.
The death of Jiang occurs weeks after former Chinese President Hu Jintao, who succeeded Jiang in 2003, was unexpectedly hauled away in the middle of the most recent Communist Party Congress, during which current Chinese President Xi Jinping consolidated his power and secured an unprecedented third term. Hu was visibly confused, appearing to exchange words with Xi before officials removed him from the chamber.
During the twice-per-decade meeting of top Chinese Communist Party legislative officials, Xi spoke of a vision to grow his country’s middle class in a speech that opened with a discussion of his geopolitical ambitions, including the defeat of democratic aspirations in Hong Kong and the imminent conquest of Taiwan. Xi has largely staked his reputation as a leader on the zero-COVID policy over the past two years.
The death of Jiang also comes as China experiences a renewed wave of protests stemming from the harsh enforcement of the nation’s zero-COVID policy. Footage of demonstrations in Beijing and Shanghai has circulated on social media as residents balk at the restrictions. Many have held blank sheets of paper, a symbol representing draconian censorship efforts from the Chinese Communist Party, in photos shared online.
Beyond their human rights implications, public health mandates have weighed upon the Chinese economy, which is expected to grow 3.2% this year and 4.4% over the next two years. The nation averaged nearly 10% annual output growth over the past four decades since free-market reforms were implemented, according to data from the World Bank. A number of manufacturers have moved operations away from China even as longer-term factors such as low labor force growth and slowing productivity continue to dampen the Chinese economy.
“We will steadfastly push for common prosperity. We will improve the system of income distribution,” Xi remarked during his speech. “We will ensure more pay for more work and encourage people to achieve prosperity through hard work. We will promote equality of opportunity, increase the income of low income earners and expand the size of the middle income group. We will keep income distribution and the means of accumulating wealth well regulated.”