China’s former leader Jiang Zemin, who assumed power during a turbulent period and led the country towards transformation, died on Wednesday. He was 96.

According to state-run news agency Xinhua, he passed away due to leukemia and multiple organ failure in Shanghai.

It said the announcement of his death was made in a letter expressing “profound grief” at his death, addressed to the whole Communist Party, military and Chinese people.

Jiang took power in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown and led the world’s most populous nation towards its emergence as a powerhouse on the global stage

“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,” Xinhua quoted the letter as saying.

Jiang’s successors as president, Hu Jintao – who was conspicuously removed from the CCP conference last month – and Xi Jinping, are scheduled to attend his funeral, according to a letter released by the state backed Global Times.

But the letter added that foreign leaders and governments will not be invited to the event. The funeral committee said the decision was in keeping with what it called “China’s practice”.

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.

Jiang rose to power after the bloody 1989 crackdown on protestors in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

The event sparked a bitter power struggle at the top of the Communist Party between hard-line reactionaries and reformers.

It led to Jiang, who had originally been seen as a plodding bureaucrat, being elevated to high office. He was chosen as a compromise leader, in the hope he would unify hardliners and more liberal elements.

Under his stewardship, a formidable economy was forged, the Communists tightened their grip on power, and China took its place at the top table of world powers.

He oversaw the peaceful handover of Hong Kong in 1997, and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 which intertwined the country with the global economy.

But political reforms were also put to one side and he crushed internal dissent while pursuing a hardline stance on Taiwan. He was criticised for the heavy-handed crackdown on the religious sect Falun Gong in 1999, which was seen as a threat to the Communist Party.

During his time in power, Jiang sought to strengthen ties with the US, visiting the country several times and offering then-president George W Bush co-operation in Washington’s “war on terror” following the 9/11 attacks.

In his later years he withdrew from government and was rarely seen in public. But even as he became less conspicuous, online he became an unlikely subject of viral internet memes.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, in a tweet, expressed condolences on Jiang’s demise. Describing him as a wise leader and a statesman, he said, “In Pakistan, we fondly remember him as a great friend who made valuable contributions in strengthening Pakistan-China relations.”

Jiang’s death comes as China sees a flare-up of anti-lockdown protests that have morphed into calls for wider political freedoms — the most widespread since the 1989 pro-democracy rallies that were crushed the year Jiang took power.

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