Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin died on Wednesday from leukemia and multiple organ failure, the ruling Communist Party said. His death, at 96, capped a life most notable for leading China out of international isolation following its bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.
Handpicked by Deng Xiaoping, the country’s paramount leader at the time, Jiang served as the head of the Communist Party until 2002 and presided over a period of economic boom and the country’s entry into the World Trade Organization. China’s integration into the global economy, a move championed by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, would turn the country into the world’s factory and the U.S.’ top competitor.
Among the Chinese public, however, Jiang was also known for his pithy quotes and flamboyant persona. Unlike the current leader Xi Jinping, who rarely interacts with the press and censors the subtlest of criticism, Jiang was an animated figure who inspired memes from admirers and detractors alike.
“He had a personal style that was sometimes a bit extravagant. I think he was more of a human being than Hu Jintao,” Jean Pierre Cabestan, a politics professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, told Reuters, comparing Jiang with his successor. “Jiang Zemin was more ready to be natural, even though sometimes it could be perceived as vulgar, not very sophisticated.”
Jiang earned the nickname “toad” for his purported resemblance to the amphibian. He is also remembered for his absurdly high-waisted pants, owl glasses, and impromptu singalongs with foreign leaders.
In 1996, when he visited the Philippines for an economic summit, he danced and sang Elvis Presley’s Love Me Tender with his Filipino counterpart, Fidel Ramos. He was photographed taking a dip off the Hawaii coast during a trip to the U.S. in 1997 and floating on his back in the Dead Sea during a visit to Israel in 2000.
While the toad comparisons first emerged in the early 2000s, the affectionate memes caught on only in 2014 in part as veiled criticism of Xi, who took power in late 2012, a study published in 2018 suggested.
“Many people expected Xi to push China into political democratization, but their wishes were quickly broken as Xi centralized power and showed his hardline conservative mindset,” a meme creator told the paper’s author, Kecheng Fang, who is now assistant professor of journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“We couldn’t express our criticism through normal channels, so we turned to other indirect ways, including lauding Jiang’s personality and characteristics in various memes.”
Jiang oversaw Hong Kong’s handover in 1997, when the former British colony’s sovereignty was transferred to China. He famously launched into a tirade in front of the city’s reporters in 2000 after they had implied that Beijing dictated who would be the semi-autonomous city’s leader.
“Wherever you go in the world, you run faster than the Western journalists, but the questions you ask are too simple, sometimes naive,” Jiang said. Hong Kong’s leaders, in fact, must all be approved by Beijing, and demands for free elections have led to mass protests.
Earlier in 2000, Jiang gave 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace a two-hour interview—one of the longest and most candid between an American journalist and a Chinese head of state to this date. He answered pointed questions on issues ranging from the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong to internet censorship to the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
At one point of the interview, Wallace asked Jiang about the Tank Man, the lone protester who blocked a column of tanks leaving the square a day after Chinese soldiers killed hundreds of civilians in central Beijing.
“Did a part of Jiang Zemin admire his courage?” Wallace asked.
“I know what you are driving at,” Jiang replied, his eyes darting to his left for a brief moment. “But what I want to emphasize is that we fully respect every citizen’s right to freely express his wishes and desires. But I do not favor any flagrant opposition to government actions during an emergency.”