Jiang Zemin, who came to power after the Tiananmen Square protests, died at the age of 96.
He died just after 12:00 local time (04:00 GMT) on Wednesday in Shanghai, according to state media.
It was under Jiang’s leadership that China opened up on a vast scale and experienced a period of rapid growth.
The death of his father comes amid some of China’s most serious protests since Tiananmen.
According to a Chinese Communist Party statement, he died of leukemia and multiple organ failure.
According to the report, he was recognized “as an outstanding leader with high prestige” and as “a long-tested Communist fighter”.
Global Times and Xinhua news agencies turned their websites black and white in tribute.
After Beijing’s Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, state broadcaster CCTV praised his role.
“Comrade Jiang Zemin supported and implemented the right decision of the Party Central Committee during the serious political turmoil in China in the spring and summer of 1989 to oppose unrest, defend socialist state power and safeguard the fundamental interests of the people,” it said.
International ostracism followed the event, resulting in a bitter power struggle within the Communist Party between hard-line reactionaries and reformers.
In the process, Jiang, who had been viewed as a plodding bureaucrat, was elevated to a high position. To unify hardliners and more liberal elements, he was chosen as a compromise leader.
In his stewardship, a formidable economy was forged, Communist power was tightened, and China became a world power.
In 1997, he oversaw the peaceful handover of Hong Kong, and in 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization.
However, he also suppressed internal dissent and pursued a hardline stance on Taiwan while putting aside political reforms. The Communist Party was criticised for his heavy-handed crackdown on Falun Gong in 1999.
In order to modernize the Communist Party, he developed his own political ideology, the Three Represents theory.
Following the 9/11 attacks, Jiang sought to strengthen ties with the US by visiting the country several times and offering to cooperate with then-president George W Bush in Washington’s “war on terror”.
He was regarded as having a more colourful personality than his successors in a country not known for flamboyant leaders. At a global summit, he sang Elvis Presley’s songs, and he went swimming off the coast of Hawaii.
During his later years, he withdrew from government and rarely appeared in public. Even as he became less conspicuous, he became the subject of viral internet memes.
Chinese caricaturists compared his appearance to a toad due to his large spectacles. “Toad worshippers” were young fans.
Other critics have cautioned against feeling nostalgic for Jiang Zemin’s era.
“A typical political opportunist,” said Wang Dan, one of the 1989 student leaders.
In fact, Jiang Zemin tried to change back to a planned economy… but Deng Xiaoping stopped him. He has always been conservative politically,” he tweeted.
Jiang’s death might trigger more protests in China now – just as the death of former Chinese Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang 33 years ago sparked the Tiananmen Square protests.
Rose Luqiu, an associate journalism professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, doesn’t think so.
BBC reported that he had disappeared from public view for a long time.
In a letter released by the state-backed Global Times, Jiang’s successors, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, are scheduled to attend his funeral.
Foreign leaders and governments will not be invited to the funeral ceremony, as per “China’s tradition”.
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