Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who led his country out of isolation after the crushing of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square and supported economic reforms that led to a decade of explosive growth, has died, state TV said. He was 96.

Jiang died of leukemia and multiple organ failure in Shanghai, where he was a former mayor and Communist Party secretary, state TV and the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

A surprise choice to lead a divided Communist Party after the crushing of the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, Jiang saw China through history-making changes including a revival of market-oriented reforms, the return of Hong Kong from British rule in 1997 and Beijing’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. He gave up his last official title in 2004 but remained a force behind the scenes in the wrangling that led to the rise of current President Xi Jinping, who took power in 2012.

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Jiang initially was seen as a transitional leader, drafted on the verge of retirement with a mandate from then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to pull together the party and nation. But he proved transformative. In 13 years as Communist Party general secretary, the top position in China, he guided China’s rise to global economic power by welcoming capitalists into the Communist Party and pulling in foreign investment after China joined the WTO.

He presided over the nation’s rise as a global manufacturer, the virtual end of European colonial rule with the return of Hong Kong and Macao from Britain and Portugal, and the achievement of a long-cherished dream of winning the right to host the Olympic Games after an earlier rejection.

Yet even as China opened to the outside, his government stamped out any dissent that questioned the Communists’ monopoly on power.

The one-time soap factory manager capped his career with the Communist era’s first orderly succession, stepping aside for a younger generation under his successor, Hu Jintao.

Even after leaving the presidency, though, Jiang sought to retain influence by holding onto the title of chairman of the Central Military Commission, which overseas China’s 2 million-member armed forces. That arrangement was awkward from the start, and Jiang eventually handed over the office in late 2004 amid complaints that he risked dividing the government in the event of a crisis.

Jiang continued to have a say in key personnel selections through his wide network of contacts, whose careers had benefited from the former president’s patronage.

Although Hu had not been his personal choice of successor, Jiang was considered successful in elevating several allies to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee that took office in 2012 with Xi at the helm. As did Hu, Xi has continued Jiang’s basic policies of economic liberalism matched with iron-fisted political control.

Jiang continued to make occasional public appearances. He stood with current and other retired leaders atop Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen gate on the People’s Republic’s 60th anniversary on Oct. 1, 2009. A parade float bearing a gigantic portrait of him rolled by.

He was atop the gate again during last year’s 70th anniversary celebrations, looking much feebler as he was helped to his feet beside Xi. The two men struck a sartorial contrast — Jiang in a Western-style suit with red tie, Xi in a severe gray Mao suit — that seemed to communicate the more conservative cultural and political environment established under Xi, who has relentlessly cracked down on civil society advocates and religious and cultural minorities.

In public, Jiang often cut an ebullient figure, another way he differed from Xi. He played piano and enjoyed singing. A halting but determined speaker of English, he would recite the Gettysburg Address for foreign visitors and on a visit to Britain tried to coax Queen Elizabeth II to sing karaoke. But the portly, bespectacled leader also showed he was a tough political fighter who defied predictions that his stint as China’s leader would be short.

Jiang was born Aug. 17, 1926, in the affluent eastern city of Yangzhou. Official biographies gloss over his family’s middle-class background, dwelling instead on his uncle and “adopted” father, Jiang Shangqing, an early revolutionary who was killed in battle in 1939.

After graduating from the electrical machinery department of Jiaotong University in Shanghai in 1947, Jiang advanced through the ranks of state-controlled industries. He worked in a food factory, then in soap-making and later, in China’s biggest automobile plant.

Like many technocratic officials, Jiang spent part of Mao’s radical Cultural Revolution as a farm laborer.

His career rise soon resumed, and by 1983 he was named minister of the electronics industry, a key but backward sector that the reformist government hoped to revive by inviting foreign investment. As mayor of Shanghai in 1985-89, Jiang impressed foreign visitors as a representative of a new breed of outward-looking Chinese leaders.

Deng picked Jiang as party general secretary in 1989 to replace Zhao Ziyang, who was sympathetic to the Tiananmen protesters and was purged and placed under house arrest until his death in 2005.