Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin died Wednesday at the age of 96, state media reported, hailing him as a great communist revolutionary who helped quell the 1989 pro-democracy protests.

Jiang took power in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, in which the military used deadly force to end peaceful demonstrations, and led China towards its emergence as a global economic powerhouse.

The major bodies of China's ruling Communist Party announced his death through a letter that expressed "profound grief". 

"Jiang Zemin passed away due to leukaemia and multiple organ failure in Shanghai at 12.13pm on November 30, 2022, at the age of 96, it was announced on Wednesday," news agency Xinhua said.

His death came after all medical treatments had failed, it added, citing the letter.

"Comrade Jiang Zemin was an outstanding leader... 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," it said.

Jiang's death comes as China sees a flare-up of anti-Covid lockdown protests that have morphed into calls for more political freedoms -- the most widespread since the 1989 pro-democracy rallies. 

"During the serious political turmoil in China in the spring and summer of 1989, Comrade Jiang Zemin supported and implemented the correct decision of the Party Central Committee to oppose unrest, defend the socialist state power and safeguard the fundamental interests of the people," state broadcaster CCTV said on Wednesday. 

Flags at half-mast

When Jiang replaced Deng Xiaoping as leader in 1989, China was still in the early stages of economic modernisation.

By the time he retired as president in 2003, China was a member of the World Trade Organization, Beijing had secured the 2008 Olympics, and the country was well on its way to superpower status.

Analysts say Jiang and his "Shanghai Gang" faction continued to exert influence over communist politics long after he left the top job, including in the selection of Xi Jinping as leader in 2012.  

Concerns over Jiang's health had been raised when he did not attend the opening or closing ceremonies of last month's Communist Party Congress, at which Xi was granted a historic third term.

CCTV said flags would be flown at half-mast at Chinese government buildings until the funeral, the date of which was not announced. 

Chinese state media websites turned black-and-white, and they posted a black-and-white photo of a chrysanthemum on their official accounts on social media platform Weibo. 

However, Jiang's legacy remains mixed and his critics numerous.

He has been accused of failing to solve new problems created by China's economic rebirth: rampant corruption and inequality, environmental degradation and state sector reforms which caused mass layoffs.

'Grandpa Jiang'

In recent years though, Jiang became an unlikely viral meme among millennial and Gen Z Chinese fans, who called themselves "toad worshippers" in thrall to his frog-like countenance and quirky mannerisms. 

Over half a million commenters flooded CCTV's post on Weibo within an hour of the announcement, with many referring to the late leader as "Grandpa Jiang".

Some used Jiang's death to take veiled jabs at Xi.

"Toad... can you take Winnie the Pooh away?" one asked, using a banned nickname for Xi.

Others on the popular app WeChat posted links to songs titled "Shame it Wasn't You" and "Wrong Man", referencing Xi.

Many of the more irreverent posts were censored from Weibo searches within minutes, with the results for Jiang's full name only showing state media accounts.

On the streets of Jiang's former powerbase Shanghai, most people AFP approached refused to comment, with one saying the death was "too sensitive". 

A taxi driver was shocked to hear the news but told AFP: "Us ordinary folk don't have much to say on stuff like this."

"He was pretty good for the people," one resident in his 60s told AFP. 

"There were a lot of corruption problems at the time, but he was a lively and jovial person... Maybe that's the image people will keep of him," Beijing resident Wang Yi told AFP. 

"The media was also freer in his time to report critically on society's problems."  

In a tweet, the University of Oxford's Professor Patricia Thornton questioned whether public displays of grief could "open up space for the expression of new dissent and new demands from students and other protestors". 

She referenced the deaths of two other former Communist Party leaders - reformer Hu Yaobang and popular premier Zhou Enlai – whose deaths in 1989 and 1976 respectively provoked mourning events that evolved into student political rallies.

Jiang's death "cannot but stir reflection on some stark differences between the not-so-distant past & the reality of life in Xi's #China today", she wrote.

Jiang is survived by his wife Wang Yeping and two sons.

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