Jiang Zemin, 1926-2022

A ChinaFile Conversation

Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin died on Wednesday at the age of 96, shortly after anger about the zero-COVID policy had boiled over into a wave of protest last weekend. Jiang took the country through the boom years of the 1990s, a time now remembered fondly amid political crackdowns, economic slowdown, and zero-COVID frustrations. A wave of mourning broke out online—but was it a celebration of the sharp-tongued Jiang, known for his love of jokes and opera, or an implicit rebuke to the current leadership? We asked ChinaFile contributors for their thoughts on Jiang’s legacy, and on the significance of official and unofficial remembrance. —The Editors


Jiang Zemin’s death on November 30 carries a powerful resonance.

The sudden demise in April 1989 of Hu Yaobang, amid brewing discontent at government policies, provided a focus for nationwide protests that generated the greatest public challenge that the Chinese Communist Party had faced for decades. Two years earlier, in 1987, Hu had been ousted by more conservative leaders for allowing the economy to lurch towards free-market reforms and for being, as they saw it, too soft on dissent. Hu was celebrated—not very accurately—by the students in Tiananmen Square as a defender of intellectual liberties battling the oppressive Party gerontocracy.

How extraordinary that Jiang’s decease should coincide with the most significant eruption of public opposition to Communist rule in China since 1989. During the last few days of November, urbanites from Urumchi to Chengdu have come into the streets to voice their opposition to Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID policies. In a context of profound popular discontent with the status quo, memories of Jiang Zemin’s period of rule (1993-2003) may become as rose-tinted as recollections of Hu Yaobang in 1989. Online channels like WeChat are already full of praise for Jiang.

Since taking power in 2012, Xi has steadily discredited and effaced the legacies of previous post-Mao rulers. He has revivified Mao-ish slogans, doubled down on the cult of the strongman leader, intensified tensions with the West, stamped down on civil society, and reasserted centralized control of an all-powerful party. In so doing, he has turned the clock back on Jiang Zemin’s muffling of Communist ideology, march towards free-market economics, and rapprochement with the United States.

Still, it’s hard to fit Jiang’s actual policies into current nostalgia for a fuzzily remembered past. Jiang was fast-tracked into the job of Party General Secretary by supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, after the dramatic fall from grace of once-likely successor Zhao Ziyang amid the crisis of 1989. Jiang came to power, therefore, supporting the Party’s egregious suppression of popular protest.

Under Jiang, however, China did not return—as seemed possible for a couple of years after 1989—to a Maoist ice age. Instead, Jiang dismantled the socialist planned economy and funneled staggering amounts of foreign investment to Chinese industry. By 1999, businessmen were being welcomed into the bosom of the Party, as representatives of “society’s most advanced productive forces.” Through the 1990s, many urbanites held at least two jobs: an undemanding, badly-paid, state-funded one; and a speculative market-economy one. Waiters shifted cheap cooking oil on the side; steel-workers diversified into venture capital and massage parlors; novelists churned out soap operas; tractor-builders hired out derelict old buses as love-nests for trysting adulterers.

Those who succeeded in surfing the waves of the new market economy enjoyed comforts unthinkable a decade earlier: cars, foreign holidays, privately owned apartments. It’s that new wealth that they, and their children, are remembering now.

But laid-off workers from state-owned enterprises struggled on pathetically small pensions, while corruption escalated. Culture became more permissive: bookstands were suddenly awash with tales of sex and sensationalism. Nonetheless, the state was ever-willing to crack down hard—and with little concern for outward legality—on those it identified as its enemies, most conspicuously practitioners of the spiritual sect Falun Gong in 1999.

For protestors in China right now, however, perhaps the lived reality of Jiang’s rule is less important than what he seems to represent in contrast with zero-COVID Xi: a time of ideology lite, economic pragmatism, and opening to the outside world.

In comparison to Xi Jinping, Jiang Zemin is often seen as a reformer, and in many ways he was. But a key part of his legacy is the sometimes forgotten or downplayed destruction of arguably the largest and most widespread post-Tiananmen political protest movement: Falun Gong.

Falun Gong was what the scholar David Palmer calls “militant qigong.” In other words, a hard-edged version of the mystic martial arts movement that rose up in the 1980s and ’90s when qigong became hugely popular, with tens of millions regularly practicing its exercises and following the many gurus who led numerous schools of thought around the movement. The government was eager to prevent qigong from becoming too popular and limited the groups’ media exposure. Most groups acquiesced, but Falun Gong pushed back. When an atheist agitator named He Zuoxiu defamed Falun Gong in the media, the group staged a silent sit-down strike of more than 10,000 people outside the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing.

Premier Zhu Rongji reportedly met the protesters and they dispersed quietly, but Jiang essentially freaked out. On June 10, 1999, he banned the group and set up offices named after that date: 610. Every level of government, from province to village, had to set up a 610 Office and stamp out Falun Gong. This became extremely difficult because Falun Gong staged protests for well over a year in many Chinese towns and cities, dwarfing the scale and geographic spread of the recent COVID protests.

Many Falun Gong adherents made their way straight to Beijing, where they held up placards calling for their group to be legalized. Forbidden by their faith to renounce it, they were rounded up, detained, and beaten. Jiang organized a meeting of provincial officials and read them the riot act: they had to prevent people from coming to Beijing. The buck was passed down the chain of command, with careers made or broken on their ability to stop Falun Gong adherents from reaching the capital. Local authorities set up illegal holding centers and beat people to death.

In my reporting for The Wall Street Journal, we documented several cases of police abuse. In the first year of the crackdown, international human rights organizations reported 74 deaths in custody but the campaign continued for years afterwards, with many sent to psychiatric hospitals. The U.N. Committee Against Torture also investigated the crimes and reprimanded China for its behavior. Conservatively, tens of thousands were detained and many thousands sent to labor camps. In one study between 2013 and 2016, the human rights group Freedom House independently verified 933 cases of Falun Gong practitioners imprisoned for up to 12 years.

In my view, Jiang got off lightly for this crackdown because many observers essentially wrote off Falun Gong adherents as whacky cult members who brought their problems on themselves. Part of it was that Falun Gong often pushed claims that human rights observers could not corroborate, such as that prisoners were killed so their organs could be harvested. It also reflected many of the Communist Party’s worst traits, including secretiveness and paranoia. And most academics and human rights observers tend to focus on pro-democracy activists. A prickly religious group agitating for the right to assemble, the right to organize, and the right to exercise its faith was seen as not so sympatico. China’s claim that Falun Gong was a “cult” was also a stroke of genius. Even the United Nations Development Program fell for this by sponsoring a conference on cults in Beijing during the crackdown.

This near erasure of Falun Gong from Jiang’s record—The New York Times’ lengthy obituary spent less than two paragraphs on Falun Gong—is probably also why reporters today claim that the current protests in China are the largest political protests since Tiananmen. The current protests are remarkable but certainly in size they do not trump ten thousand people in one single protest, let alone a year’s worth of regular protests in villages, towns, and cities across the country.

In hindsight, Jiang’s crackdown on Falun Gong set the stage for the state’s reassertion of control over the rest of religious life and civil society. Interestingly, the significance of Jiang’s crackdown was not lost on China’s human rights lawyers. Terence Halliday and Sida Liu have documented how Falun Gong became a litmus test for rights lawyers. More than a decade after the crackdown, only the lawyers most committed to free speech and freedom of association dared to take on their cases.

What do we know about elite politics during the Jiang Zemin era? Not much, really. We’re only now slowly figuring out how wrongly we interpreted Hua Guofeng as a leader. Mysteries of the Deng Xiaoping era persist, but at least there is meat on the bone: Party history journals like Yanhuang chunqiu that pushed the envelope for decades, extensive official (but still useful) publications like biographies and chronologies, memoirs and high-quality histories published in Hong Kong, and even massive collections of primary sources and interviews, often curated by individuals who surrounded purged leaders (or were themselves persecuted).

It’s hard to overstate how little reliable material we actually have about Chinese politics from 1992 to 2002. Chen Xitong, the mayor of Beijing during 1989 who was later sentenced to jail for corruption, was so incensed by Jiang (as well as Li Peng’s “diary” of the June 4 crackdown) that he gave a series of interviews published in Hong Kong. Robert Lawrence Kuhn wrote an adulatory biography that includes useful hints based on extensive interviews. Bruce Gilley and Andrew Nathan wrote a book that draws upon a mysterious cache of leaked documents. Some official publications, especially the biography of Zhang Wannian, the former Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, contain fascinating tidbits, and a handful of Chinese journalists have written on the “left-right” debate during that decade. But that is about it. Even archives from other countries, always a crucial source for understanding China, have only slowly started declassifying documents from this era. And since the current leader of China believes digging up the secrets of the past is a prelude to “historical nihilism” and, therefore, an existential threat to the regime, it probably will not get much easier anytime soon.

But it already seems like we know a lot about Jiang. News accounts often portray Xi Jinping as a break from this now almost golden era, when Beijing was on the “right track”—China was opener and freer, collective leadership and institutionalization moved forward, and the country was still “biding its time” on the international stage. Xi doesn’t shy away from periodization either. His legitimation narrative is actually quite careful when it comes to history: he has explicitly said that “neither of the 30 years” (meaning the 30 years before and the 30 years after the beginning of Reform and Opening) can be rejected. But Xi also points to problems that Reform and Opening created that needed his style of leadership to solve—corruption, loss of faith in the Party’s historical mission, poor discipline, and uneven economic development. (Interestingly, Xi mentioned essentially these exact challenges in the 1990s in a hagiographic speech about Jiang’s “Three Represents.”)

What will we learn about Jiang in the future? Already, some evidence hints at a more complicated view. Jiang, who lacked prestige and status within the Party, helicoptered to the top leadership in the wake of June 4, but, by the end of his reign, the late pro-reform elder Li Rui would write disdainfully of him in his diaries, suggesting that Jiang acted like a “third generation core” who forced people to “raise his sedan” and was not skilled. Another liberal Party elder, Du Daozheng, said that political reform under Jiang “sometimes even went backwards.” After coming to power, Jiang introduced new hardline policies on United Front work, ethnic policy, religion, and the National People’s Congress—all areas where Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, had introduced more “softline” policies. Jiang changed informal age limits to push out two of his competitors, and, at first, refused to leave his position as head of the Central Military Commission when Hu Jintao became general-secretary. Even the Jiang-Hu transition was perhaps less a case of “institutionalized” succession than Deng, rather “feudally,” picking both of his successors. Will new evidence lead to a tinkering of our general sense of Jiang, or a more fundamental shift? Maybe we’ll know in a few decades.

History has a curious way of adjusting verdicts on global leaders after they pass from the scene, and how we come to view them is changed by new revelations. But sometimes flaws are opportunistically rouged over to highlight the shortcomings of successors. Such may be the case with Jiang Zemin.

While in office from 1989 until 2002 (he stepped down from his last position in the Central Military Commission in 2004), Jiang was viewed as an affable but somewhat clownish leader prone to seeking attention by reciting the Gettysburg Address in English or crooning songs in Italian. At the same time, he was not incapable of cracking down on the Falun Gong, firing missiles into the Taiwan Strait, and suppressing internal dissent. However, when compared to stern, techno-autocratic Xi Jinping who reigns as Party General Secretary today, Jiang now seems like a breath of fresh air. He was far more garrulous and open than Xi, who leans heavily on ritual, ceremony, pomp, and circumstance. Nor was he afraid to spontaneously engage foreign leaders in a personal way. His 1998 press conference with President Bill Clinton in the Great Hall of the People was emblematic of his free-form way of interacting that facilitated problem-solving.

Jiang’s personal manner bespoke of an essential ingredient that helped make “engagement” a viable U.S. policy. Unlike Xi, Jiang personally enjoyed the company of many of his foreign counterparts. It is the absence of this quality in Xi’s interactions that bodes ill for him and President Biden ever being able to form the kind of meaningful inter-personal bond that is usually a prerequisite to solving real problems.

As we edge toward Jiang’s memorial ceremony on Tuesday, it is also likely that Chinese people themselves will engage in a little revisionist thinking. Just as they heaped praise on Hu Yaobang as an avatar of openness after his death in 1989, they may also now imbue Jiang with a similar latter-day luster that will serve as an oblique way to criticize Xi Jinping’s neo-Maoist reign.

As a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State with responsibility for China from 1997 to 2000, I observed President Jiang Zemin’s diplomatic style at close range during the 1997-1998 exchange of state visits, and I traveled on his plane during his tour of the U.S.

Jiang was the first Chinese leader to perform on the world stage as a statesman. Thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s desire to reinforce the top leader’s authority after the 1989 Tiananmen crisis, Jiang held three leadership positions, General Secretary of the Party (most powerful), head of the Central Military Commission (commander in chief), and state president, the last being a largely ceremonial job in the past. But Jiang made the most of the president’s title as head of state to travel widely to represent the country. He obviously relished the role, enjoying his interactions with President Clinton and other leaders and the prestige they conveyed for China and for him personally. Although he was a novice in the world of diplomacy whose career up to then had been entirely domestic, he was remarkably poised, extroverted, and amiable to everyone.

In Hawaii, he performed at a dinner by playing the Hawaiian lap guitar to accompany a female singer, unperturbed by the chants of pro-Tibet demonstrators that wafted into the outdoor pavilion. I rode in a small boat with him to visit Pearl Harbor, where he took advantage of the opportunity to highlight the historical anti-Japanese alliance between China and America.

His press conferences with President Bill Clinton showed a remarkable aplomb in the friendly jousting between them, including Clinton’s urging that Jiang meet with the Dalai Lama (“I believe . . . they would like each other very much,” Clinton said). Jiang had been coached by State Council Information Office head Zhao Qizheng for his public and media appearances. He was so jolly that he seemed almost clown-like. Clinton always reminded staffers that we shouldn’t underestimate him.

In February 1998, then Chinese leader Jiang Zemin and his wife visited my hometown of Nanjing during the Lantern Festival, which marked the end of the Chinese New Year. My sister, an official in charge of the Confucian Temple where the festival was held, got to meet Jiang.

“He was so easygoing as he happily went along with all the arrangements, even though he held the lofty position of leader of the whole nation. A benevolent leader!” she gushed to me in a telephone interview after Jiang died. Jiang shook hands and cracked jokes with everyone present. When they passed the former residence of Li Xiangjun, a well-known beauty of the early 17th century, he began to talk about the opera The Peach Blossom Fan, inspired by her story. A huge fan of opera, he started to sing a few lines, winning enthusiastic applause. “I was deeply impressed,” my sister said. “He was a man of knowledge, charm, and sophistication.”

Then she added: “If we still had him as our leader, or someone enlightened like him, then we probably wouldn’t have to endure the excessive lockdown measures.”

This kind of nostalgia is very common right now. Many Chinese citizens have left messages on social media, remembering Jiang fondly, or posted videos of memorable moments, such as Jiang conducting a choir singing “Graduation Song,” a popular patriotic tune. There is an implicit contrast with greyer figures (or leaders?) like Xi Jinping. People can’t help but compare the former leader with Xi, who is behind the increasingly unpopular zero-COVID policy, and who is seen as authoritarian and power-thirsty.

Jiang served as China’s leader from 1989 to 2002. During his reign, he stabilized the country, repaired the damage caused by the brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, and sought a warmer relationship with the West, especially the United States. It was a period of economic growth, which paved the way for China’s rise on the world stage. It was also a period of relative tolerance.

But it was not all a bed of roses. In the 1990s, to increase the efficiency of state-owned enterprises, economic reform measures were introduced which resulted in some 60 million urban workers being laid off. Many of my former colleagues at the rocket factory I had worked for lost their jobs. There was an undercurrent of resentment towards Jiang.

Now he is gone. Amid economic downturn and political repression, the Chinese public are remembering his positive side, his warmth and color, and his many talents, such as singing. Nostalgia, like old wine, tastes better as time goes by.

As they think of the past, many Chinese worry about their future. Ms. Yan, an old friend from Nanjing, is concerned that China will become isolated in the world and the yuan will devalue, eating up her modest savings. “Why can’t we have a sensible leader like Jiang?” she lamented. “When will we be able to choose our own leader?”

A decade ago as Orville Schell and I worked on our book Wealth and Power—a synoptic history of modern China written around the lives of a dozen key leaders and thinkers—we made some hard choices about which figures would not merit their own chapter.

Among Communist Party leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were shoe-ins. (Each ended up with two chapters.) The first-generation figure Chen Duxiu also qualified due to his dual significance as the intellectual force behind the New Culture movement combined with his political significance as a co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But when it came to telling the story of Chinese politics after Deng, neither of the “paramount leaders” got his own chapter. Hu Jintao was simply too faceless, too much a bland technocrat, to be the life of a chapter. Jiang Zemin, by contrast, was plenty colorful . . . and Orville himself had been in the room for some of Jiang’s most lively performances. But ultimately, we saw Jiang as epiphenomenal. He papered over the divisions between reformers and old guard during the rocky transition out of the Party’s near-death experience of June 4, 1989. But the most important story of the 1990s, when Jiang was indisputably the single-most powerful individual in the world’s most populous country, was about wealth, not about power. And thus we structured that chapter around Jiang’s number two, Premier Zhu Rongji, the economic czar during the breakout decade for the China Boom. Like Jiang (and unlike today’s paramount leader), Premier Zhu was unafraid of unscripted dialogue while the cameras were rolling, and used the press to get out his argument on the need to press forward with “reform and opening up.”

Zhu is 94 years old, and evidently not in shape to attend the 20th Party Congress, where the 79-year-old Hu Jintao was so unceremoniously ejected from the podium. When he follows Jiang in going “to meet Marx,” it will mark the passing of an era in Party history that curiously, as contrasted with the rigidity and repressiveness of the Xi Jinping decade, looks more and more “liberal” (by CCP standards!) in retrospect. One wonders how young people in China are processing these generational shifts, and the paradox that the fading Elders may be seen to represent a more open and cosmopolitan spirit than the newly-enshrined Politburo made up of Xi and his men. The unifying goal of reformers and revolutionaries across so much of modern Chinese history was to reverse the “backwardness” of their country’s trajectory. For all his flaws, Jiang Zemin gets credit for letting people move forward in economic terms and move out into the world. Based on the stunning protests held in cities across China, it seems many people fear things are moving backward again.

A Chinese political joke goes:

Some days after June 4th, Deng Xiaoping, Yang Shangkun, Jiang Zemin, and Li Peng went for a drive on the outskirts of Beijing, when a donkey blocked their way. Li Peng got out and kicked and yelled at the donkey but it wouldn’t budge. Shangkun rushed forward and told him: “If you don’t go, Comrade Xiaoping will send in the martial law troops.” The donkey still did not move. Old Deng, sitting there, was getting impatient. He said, “Zemin, you go down and see what you can do.” Jiang Zemin got out and whispered a few words to the donkey. Startled, the donkey ran off. Old Deng said, “What did you tell the donkey?” Jiang really didn’t want to answer, but he had no choice. He told Deng reluctantly, “I told the donkey, ‘If you don’t go, Comrade Xiaoping will make you General Secretary of the Communist Party!”

Jiang Zemin became the face of “the butchers of Beijing.” With the help of Premier Li Peng, the most hated man in China, Jiang took up the traditional Party top leader role of noble visionary beloved by the people. One exception was his personally initiated cruel and unnecessary crackdown on the Falun Gong.

Jiang’s achievements include government and economic reform. He cut many People’s Republic of China (PRC) central government ministries, pushing reform downstream to the provincial level. With Premier Zhu Rongji he had the herculean task of getting China’s fractious, protectionist localities to “join” some semblance of a “China Trade Organization” so that the PRC would be able to join the WTO in 2001.

As Deng faded, Jiang became top leader. China’s rapid economic growth and heavy foreign investment resumed and China resumed its place in the world as the shock of the massacres around Tiananmen Square faded. Jiang brought capitalists into the Chinese Communist Party. Many Chinese workers were able to obtain title to their apartments once held by their employers under the old work unit system. In the mid and late 1990s, people turned to enjoying renewed rapid economic growth, seemingly setting aside as futile the ideals of 1989. Students at home and abroad were mostly forgiven for 1989 if they kept their mouths shut; the working people who had supported them were more likely to be punished in the Tiananmen aftermath. As the Party gradually loosened up, in 1998 some hoped for liberalization—a “Beijing Spring.” But it was not to be. Despite university reform to strengthen Party control and increasingly restrictive Internet regulations, the last years of Jiang’s Party chairmanship were the most open the country had seen in the last two decades. Successor Hu Jintao’s first year brought a sharp tightening. The decade of Hu continued tightening like a series of waves steadily getting higher until the advent of Xi, when things got much tighter. After all, it is the Party’s job to regulate society in China’s people’s democratic dictatorship.

In 1997, the US-China Business Council, which I had the honor of leading, held a very upscale banquet at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City for about a hundred U.S. CEOs, to welcome Jiang Zemin and his delegation. We made it pretty snazzy, and one of its features was live background music throughout the evening.

To perform that music, I invited my brother, the late Richard Kapp, to put together a string quartet from among the members of the Philharmonia Virtuosi of New York, the well-known chamber group that he established and conducted. Knowing my brother and his musicianship well, I knew that the music would be of high quality and appropriate to the occasion—one less thing to worry about.

During dinner, since I had seated myself at the head table, I remarked to Jiang Zemin that the music in the background was being performed by musicians under the leadership of my brother. Jiang said something to the effect of, “Let’s go over and greet them.” So over we went. Warm greetings all around.

Jiang started a chat with the first violinist in that night’s quartet, concertmistress of the Philharmonia Virtuosi and Dick’s favorite violinist, a Ukrainian Jewish emigré, perhaps in her fifties, with flaming red hair of uncertain, provenance.

“Where are you from?” Jiang asked. “Ukraine,” she replied.

Brief silence.

“Do you remember the old Sino-Soviet Friendship Songs?” Jiang asked.

“Do I ever!” (or words to that effect), she said.

And so, while myriad CEO mouths hung open, the President of China belted out Sino-Soviet Friendship Songs, accompanied by a brilliant American immigrant violinist from a world she and President Jiang had once shared.