The feral capitalism that Mr. Jiang and Mr. Zhu fostered created a wide rich-poor divide even as it lifted vast numbers from poverty, and it nurtured a culture of official corruption and cronyism.
“In some ways, that was the start of this live-and-let-live attitude toward corruption that Xi Jinping now finds himself attacking,” said Joseph Fewsmith, a professor at Boston University who studies Chinese leadership politics.
By the time Mr. Jiang retired from the party leadership in 2002 and from the presidency in 2003, his influence and self-regard had swollen so much that he was reluctant to leave the political stage. (His successor, Hu Jintao, had already been designated by Mr. Deng.)
Mr. Jiang lingered as chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, overseeing the People’s Liberation Army until 2004, and then continued to play a back-room role in promotions. Party insiders said Mr. Jiang had used his influence to shape the leadership lineup that Mr. Xi inherited when he became party leader in November 2012.
In August 2015, People’s Daily, the party’s flagship newspaper, issued an unusually blunt warning that retired leaders should stay out of politics and “cool off” like a cup of tea after a guest has left. The commentary fanned rumors that Mr. Xi had been irked by Mr. Jiang’s efforts to exert power behind the scenes, but the two men soon after appeared on the rostrum together with former President Hu Jintao during a military parade in Beijing.
But the influence of Mr. Jiang and his coterie of allies, sometimes known as the Shanghai Faction, has faded over the last decade. At a Communist Party congress last month, Mr. Xi installed a new Politburo Standing Committee, the seven men who run China, that is entirely composed of his loyalists, with no holdovers among the officials with close ties to his predecessors, Mr. Jiang and Mr. Hu.
“Jiang Zemin continued to wield influence even after he stepped down, but that hurt his reputation,” said Mr. Yang, the Beijing historian. “He did that because he was comfortable with power, but also because around him there was a circle of people who relied on him and puffed him up to make him think he was indispensable.”