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China’s Jiang Zemin confounded doubters, mended US ties

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Despite rumours that he wanted to cling to power, Jiang retired as party chief in 2002, handing the reins to Hu Jintao in China’s first bloodless leadership transition since the 1949 revolution.

His style could surprise his guests, who expected a polished, urbane president but met instead a gregarious ex-automobile factory manager who would sometimes burst into songs, recite poems or play musical instruments.

“He had a personal style that was sometimes a bit extravagant. I think he was more of a human being than Hu Jintao,” said Jean Pierre Cabestan, a politics professor at Hong Kong’s Baptist University.

“Jiang Zemin was more ready to be natural, even though sometimes it could be perceived as vulgar, not very sophisticated.”

The Soviet-trained technocrat was a relative unknown when he was tapped by Deng while serving in Shanghai to take over the reins of power.

Jiang was widely seen as a compromise candidate when he replaced reformer Zhao Ziyang, toppled by hardliners for sympathising with the student-led movement crushed by the army around Beijing’s central Tiananmen Square in Jun 1989.

At that time, many compared Jiang to Chairman Hua Guofeng, Mao’s chosen successor, who was ousted by Deng in the late 1970s after a few short years at the helm. But Jiang hung on, adding the presidency to his list of titles in 1993.

Zealous for neighbouring, self-ruled Taiwan to accept Chinese sovereignty, Jiang menaced the island with war games and missile tests in the run-up to its first direct presidential election in 1996, souring bilateral relations for more than a decade.

In 1997, Jiang made an ice-breaking trip to the United States.

“American poet Longfellow once wrote, ‘But to act that each tomorrow finds us farther than today … Act, act in the living present’,” he told then-US President Bill Clinton, speaking in English.

“We should go along with the trend of the times, and respond to the will of the people, and continue our march forward towards the establishment and development of a constructive, strategic partnership,” he said.

Jiang managed crises in Sino-US relations after the 1999 NATO bombing of Beijing’s embassy in Belgrade and the 2001 collision between a Chinese jet fighter and a US spy plane in Chinese airspace, which plunged bilateral ties to their lowest ebb since diplomatic contact was re-established in 1971.

In 2002, Jiang was one of the few world leaders to meet US President George W Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

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