Jiang Zemin, former Chinese leader, dies at 96 Jiang Zemin rose to power in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests and leaves a legacy of economic reforms — but also tight political control.

China's ex-leader Jiang Zemin, an influential reformer, has died at 96

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

China's state news agency says former President Jiang Zemin has died. State-run media say he died in Shanghai of leukemia and multiple organ failure. He was 96. He was at the center of Chinese political life for 15 years, a period when China seemed to be opening for change. Louisa Lim reports on his life and legacy.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Jiang Zemin rose to power during the chaos of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. He was a surprise choice as party leader after the purge of the liberals. Originally, he was thought to be a weak transitional figure, but by 1993, he had become China's president, a post he held for a decade, all the while increasing his power base.

JIA QINGGUO: He managed to steer China from great difficulties to great promise.

LIM: Jia Qingguo from Peking University's School of International Studies says history will judge Jiang Zemin kindly.

JIA: China became - under his leadership - more open to the outside world, more liberal, and China's economy became more dynamic.

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JIANG ZEMIN: (Non-English language spoken).

LIM: Jiang's main ideological innovation was a clumsy theory called the Three Represents. It was enshrined into Communist Party orthodoxy in 2002. Jiang wanted to allow capitalists to join the Communist Party, and this theory underpinned the ideological somersaults necessary to permit this. Willy Lam, from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has written a biography of Jiang. He says this move ultimately ensured the party's continued grip on power.

WILLY LAM: This has been instrumental in ensuring that the party remains relevant. But, of course, the nature of the party has changed tremendously. It is no longer a party of the workers or peasants. What we have seen is that a new aristocracy has risen up the ranks. It is now a party of the rich and powerful.

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JIANG: Fourscore and the seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation.

LIM: Jiang Zemin was, by Chinese standards, a colorful leader. He delighted in quoting the Gettysburg Address in English and in singing in public.

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JIANG: (Singing in Non-English language).

(CHEERING)

LIM: His image as a buffoon, a political lightweight, even, obscured some of his real achievements. He oversaw the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, and he fought domestic critics to speed up China's entry into the World Trade Organization. This brought China in line with international legal norms and forced it to open up hitherto closed sectors of the economy. In 2001, when negotiators agreed on the Chinese terms of entry, the then-WTO-director-general, Mike Moore, laid out the significance of this move.

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MIKE MOORE: This is a decision that will change the world. The Chinese leadership have said to me that this is the most important decision they have made in 50 years.

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JIANG: (Singing in Italian).

LIM: As leader, Jiang Zemin was never a man of the people. But Zhang Ming from Beijing's Renmin University believes Jiang Zemin will be remembered with the affection he didn't necessarily inspire when in power.

ZHANG MING: (Through interpreter) Back then, we all found him very annoying. Jiang had many flaws. He was attention-seeking and liked performing. But in retrospect, we feel his era was all right. We miss it. That's the tragedy of China. The country hasn't changed for the better, so we miss the past.

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JIANG: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

LIM: Jiang Zemin remained as the head of the central military commission until 2004, but his influence resonates even today. He was a factional powerbroker, and the path Jiang set of pursuing economic development without political reform is still shaping the way China is run today.

INSKEEP: Insights from our former NPR Beijing correspondent Louisa Lim.

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