The Jiang Zemin Mystery


Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been to bring it to Tiananmen Square, long the epicenter of political power in China. Indeed, there is an almost religious belief among Chinese that if the advocates of a cause can only gain entrance to this sanctum sanctorum of political rule, or come close to it, quasi-mystical political legitimacy will be conferred on them. Again and again, from the May Fourth Movement in 1919 to the present, Chinese protesters have been drawn to the square, sometimes suicidally.

As if momentous historic events could be put out of mind simply by putting the place where they happened out of sight, Tiananmen Square was closed for renovations this spring, ostensibly in preparation for the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. On October 1 the Party hopes to further erase memories of the anti-Party events—above all the massacre of the night of June 3, 1989—that have taken place in the square with a grand official spectacle, two weeks after President Clinton’s scheduled visit to a regional summit meeting in New Zealand in mid-September, which Chinese Communist Party Secretary General and President Jiang Zemin will also attend.

But the authorities were embarrassed once more on April 25, when, with the square itself closed off, ten thousand members of the crypto-Buddhist-Taoist sect known as Falun Gong, or the Wheel of Law, silently surrounded Zhongnanhai, the Party leadership compound, which is adjacent to the square and to the Forbidden City, where they simply sat down in front of the main gate. They were, they said, protesting the arrest of fellow believers who had been demonstrating against a magazine in nearby Tianjin that had attacked the sect. After staying for several hours, they quietly left. But their rally was the largest public protest movement in China since 1989.

The sect followers had unexpectedly eluded the radar of Public Security Bureau scrutiny, showing a remarkable capacity for underground organization that no commentator I know of anticipated. That they were able to do so was deeply unnerving to China’s leaders. Jiang Zemin was reported to be enraged by the sect’s effrontery and to have ordered a vendetta against it. In July, the authorities detained thousands of followers and indicted the sect’s New York-based leader Li Hongzhi as “inciting and creating disturbances and jeopardizing social stability.” Indictments of other leaders are now expected.

What was particularly infuriating to Jiang was that the protest was successfully carried off just as the Party leaders were emphasizing the need for “stability” and were seeking to reconsecrate the square as a place where only dignified state ceremonies could be carried out. For the Chinese leaders the quiet challenge of the Falun Gong members cast a shadow over the triumph of June 27, 1998, when Jiang had officially welcomed Clinton to China in the square. After an honor guard of People’s Liberation Army, Air Force, and Navy troops goose-stepped past hundreds of cameras, a battery of howitzers opened up from the middle of the square to sound a twenty-one-gun salute. Then Jiang and Clinton marched up the granite steps of the Great Hall of the People together, right over the place where, on April 20, 1989, students had kneeled in supplication with a petition of grievance held above their heads, only to be ignored by their government.

* * *

If the imagery was all wrong for Clinton, however, it was perfect for Jiang. There in “the Square,” he was seen welcoming and chatting confidently with the most powerful man in the world while elements of the army that had committed the slaughter marched by in parade. The pictures of this meeting, shown on TV throughout China, were exactly what Jiang needed. They suggested not only that the “blood debt” of 1989 had been forgiven by the outside world, but that Jiang had now been admitted to the fraternity of respected global leaders. At last, the event seemed to suggest, a Chinese was running with the “big boys” of geopolitics.

Several hours later, when I attended the joint press conference inside the Great Hall, Jiang looked even more determined to rise above the image of the stiff, closed-lip socialist leader who read a Party-line speech and then departed without taking questions. He and Clinton started bantering about such taboo subjects as human rights, Tibet, and even the 1989 massacre itself—subjects that had never before been publicly discussed in such a spontaneous way within this cathedral of Communist orthodoxy. With the new and relaxed attitude that Jiang was affecting—even speaking a few words of English, which suggested that he might be on the verge of overcoming some of the deep suspicion toward foreigners that has plagued China’s relations with the West for so long—China suddenly seemed less concerned to maintain the contrived anti-imperialist proletarian pose that in the past had often made it appear so doctrinaire in its international dealings. The air of sophistication and self-confidence Jiang was so evidently trying to cultivate was reinforced when, at the very last minute, reporters were told that he had allowed the entire exchange to be broadcast live via Central Chinese Television. Many journalists present were tempted to imagine that they had witnessed a pathbreaking performance.

Yet despite all this, and even as Jiang seemed to be exhilarated by the repartee, he could not resist returning to the safety of his prepared text. Then, shortly after the subject of Tibet came up, and just when the exchange with Clinton was getting truly interesting, Jiang seemed to lose his nerve. Peremptorily he said, “If you agree, we will finish this.” But Clinton, who was obviously enjoying himself, had to have the last word. “You have to let me say one thing about the Dalai Lama…. Something that will perhaps be unpopular with everyone,” he said impishly. “I have spent time with the Dalai Lama. I believe him to be an honest man, and I believe that if he had a conversation with President Jiang, they would like each other very much.” An audible gasp went up from those of us watching. (Not surprisingly, but lamentably, nothing ever came of this suggestion, as Jonathan Mirsky recently reported in these pages.1)

Watching his performance in the Great Hall, I wondered whether a more sophisticated China was actually emerging from the wreckage of Mao’s revolution in the person of Jiang, who seemed to be studiously trying to re-invent himself as a more cosmopolitan leader, one less constrained by Party dogma and protocol, and more at ease with the West.

* * *

What hinders Jiang, and indeed China itself in its efforts to participate in international affairs, is not only the Party’s record of unrepented mass persecutions, famines, and massacres, but an uncertainty about what, as a nation, China now aspires to be, and how it will fit into the new configuration of global power in which the US is pre-eminent. And what makes it so difficult for Chinese leaders and intellectuals alike to redefine themselves, much less to escape the past and put forward a vision of the future, is the way in which they have kept themselves tied to so much old Party dogma and to the befouled history of “the Revolution.”

They are still unable to honestly reconsider and reappraise huge chunks of their “official” past—much less to fully “reverse the verdict” on such Party-sponsored outrages as the pogrom against landlords in the early 1950s, the Anti-Rightist Campaign against intellectuals and the Great Leap Forward and the communization of agriculture in the late 1950s, Mao’s role in the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, the treatment of the democracy movement activists in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and the Beijing Massacre in 1989. Then, of course, there is their unresolved and deeply rooted Party view of the West as an “imperialist” predator. In short, they fear that candidly facing the past and their revolutionary ideology would undermine the authority of the Party and destroy its justification for ruling unilaterally in the name of “the people.”

This fear helps to keep Jiang and China paralyzed; it prevents the intelligentsia from thinking freely and creatively about the sort of society, economy, and government it would like to see emerge during the next century, and, even more, from overcoming old suspicions and prejudices enough to envision a real “strategic partnership” with the US. As things stand now, China is something of a headless horseman, rushing forward into the future with an almost hellish energy, but without clear direction and less idea of how to accommodate the US and its old animosities toward it.

There in the Great Hall Jiang told Clinton, “As China and the US have different social systems, ideologies, values, and cultures and traditions, we have some difference of views on certain issues”—but he didn’t go on to try to describe what China stood for. All he said was that “the world is a colorful one,” that “the development parts of the countries in the world should be chosen by the people of the countries concerned”—as if the Chinese people, “masters of the nation,” as Jiang put it, had chosen the curious political system that has arisen in China.

* * *

The truth is that China is not only in the midst of a vast economic transformation, but is also suffering from a crisis of identity. China’s Marxist-Leninist Party was committed for sixty years to a Stalinist-Maoist form of socialism which emphasized class struggle at home and left it in a state of deep antagonism toward the West and Japan abroad. Now it is trying to rule a society that is mutating into an almost uncategorizable form of crypto-capitalism dependent on global markets. The Chinese people, many of whom seem increasingly nostalgic about their only recently repudiated Confucian traditions and the early years of the revolution, also have ambivalent feelings about democracy, science, and pop culture. They hardly know where to turn in order to achieve cultural and political direction.

Even the Party’s Propaganda Department is more and more at a loss to know what, besides direct attacks on leaders, ought to be censored. Information, entertainment, and news have become profitable businesses. Tabloid Sunday newspaper supplements (zhoumouban) feature lurid cover stories about crime, sex, violence, corruption, and scandal. There are many outspoken radio talk shows and investigative TV shows such as the 60 Minutes-like Zhaodian Fangtan; books are banned because they are too critical of official malfeasance (although these are often quickly republished in pirated editions, at high prices, through the dier qudao, or “second channel”). However, the official mass media still do not freely discuss big political issues, sensitive questions concerning foreign affairs, or China’s leader, much less the Beijing massacre. While the Chinese press has shown, in some instances, startling boldness, absolute limits remain.

It may be that Jiang Zemin has been hoping that spontaneous, piecemeal changes in the mass media would serve as an evolutionary prelude to grander political reforms.2 Indeed, would-be reformers inside the government have often found that selective enforcement of Draconian laws can sometimes be their best hope for a more tolerant system. It is also possible that Jiang is simply too weak to move more aggressively in a liberal direction. Whatever the reason, Jiang’s political actions seem as deeply contradictory and difficult to understand as China itself.

During the post-June 4th crackdown in 1989, he insisted that “we must be determined to ferret out and promptly and harshly punish all plotters, organizers, and behind the scenes manipulators of the rebellion and unrest.” But he was also able to say, “We feel regret for the families of those killed and injured,” and then take a surprisingly conciliatory (although not well publicized) attitude toward Party members who had joined in the protests.

* * *

While he has been an active reformer when it comes to economics, Jiang has appeared far more conservative when it comes to democratizing China’s outmoded political system. And while he has been eager to work out a new relationship with the US, he was either unable, or unwilling—as the recent anti-American demonstrations showed—to stand off the forces of nationalism and xenophobia that have always slept just beneath the surface in China and have once again overtly erupted. In fact, on matters of political reform and foreign policy, he has often yielded, and even pandered, to hard-liners who are concerned about the corrosive influence of so-called “bourgeois liberalization” and “peaceful evolution” on China’s dwindling standards of revolutionary purity. For him, as for Deng Xiaoping, “political reform” seems not to mean democratization, but finding ways to make China’s one-party state work more efficiently while more and more people become prosperous. But it is also worth noting that Deng, although he warned against American or Russian “hegemonism,” was strong enough to avoid playing the anti-American card.3

Jiang’s formula for China has been what some have described as “Communist capitalism.” It combines a politically authoritarian state with increasing amounts of economic and social freedom, a freedom, as the Chinese political economist He Qinglian argued, that has become deeply infected by the corruption and nepotism of Party officials.4

Because some Party officials wanted to reinforce the notion abroad that China was moving toward a greater respect for the rule of law, and because leaders like Jiang and Zhu Rongji, who is now premier, were obviously finding it increasingly embarrassing to be seen as museum pieces, the leftovers of a collapsed Marxism, in March 1997 the National People’s Congress eliminated crimes of “counterrevolution” from China’s criminal code. This did not mean, however, that they were ready to “reverse the verdicts” and release the thousands of Chinese already in prison for counterrevolutionary crimes. “The punishment meted out for crimes of counterrevolution in the past will remain valid and cannot be altered,” declared NPC Standing Committee member Wang Hanbin when introducing the new code.5

Nor did it mean that leaders were about to stop arresting political dissidents or members of forbidden religious sects. As recent arrests show, activists who simply try to register legally the new China Democracy Party can expect to be sent to prison (which has not stopped advocates of the party from quietly meeting in cities such as Hangzhou and communicating with one another on the Internet).6 Dissidents are now simply being charged with crimes of “endangering state security.” Indeed, along with the 1993 State Security Law and the 1988 PRC Law on the Preservation of State Secrets, the new provisions in the criminal code give the state even broader powers than before to charge domestic critics. And any dissident who has had a connection to foreign organizations is now vulnerable to charges of espionage, an indictment that may come in particularly handy as a retaliatory weapon following allegations that a Taiwan-born scientist, Wen Ho Lee, stole important US secrets about the miniaturization of nuclear weapons from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and turned them over to the Chinese government.

* * *

In China’s relations with the US, Jiang has similarly shown two faces. Even before the vehement Chinese reaction to the bombing of its Belgrade embassy on May 7, he had portrayed the US as a “hostile foreign force” interfering in China’s “internal affairs.”7 During a 1993 anticorruption campaign, for instance, Jiang appealed to Chinese nationalism by insisting that “some forces in the West have never relaxed their ‘peaceful evolution’ plot against China. They confuse people’s minds and wreak havoc in our socialist construction.”8 Jiang also insisted that Chinese must be ready “at any time” to “counter ‘peaceful evolution’ and combat corruption and wholesale Westernization.”9 But at the same time, he also tried to cultivate closer bilateral ties with Washington—what came to be known as our “strategic partnership.” Jiang even said, “We must positively learn from advanced technology, scientific management, and progressive culture of Western countries, including capitalist countries.” But if recent anti-American sentiments are any indication of Jiang’s distrust of the US, we may surmise that he either feels too vulnerable to chauvinists to make any moderating public statement or that he continues to have his own deep suspicions about American intentions.

Whenever Jiang has negotiated with the US, he has always resisted even the appearance of yielding to pressure. His obduracy has meant that US concessions made in hopes of “getting the relationship back on track” have frequently not been matched by the Chinese side.10 This capacity for seeming tough notwithstanding, it has often been hard to take him seriously as a world leader. What is one to make of a president who, when abroad, sits down at a piano to play sentimental socialist anthems and breaks into karaoke tunes over the PA system of his presidential jet? On his travels, Jiang has delivered his own versions of the Gettysburg address to student demonstrators; grabbed the baton from a conductor and then led the puzzled band and audience in renditions of “The Great Motherland”; danced the hula in Hawaii; and even attempted the cha-cha and a version of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” while on a state visit to the Philippines.

Such efforts are probably part of a neosocialist effort to create the kind of folksy personality that Jiang or his advisers imagine is appreciated abroad. But Jiang’s efforts seem strained, to say the least. Such buffoonery also runs counter to traditional Chinese notions of the great leader remaining aloof and mysterious.11 While Jiang’s “performances” may make him seem less wooden to foreigners, they also end up making him seem silly and self-deluded.

So have some of his political statements. He is the leader of a nation that has for decades trampled on its own legal system, held no real elections, systematically imprisoned its political opposition, persecuted religious believers, and shot peaceful demonstrators. Yet Jiang could declare in 1996,

In our country, all the powers belong to the people. This is something that countries in the West can hardly match. We have every reason to state proudly that, compared with Western countries’ “tripartite” political system, China’s [National People’s Congress] system is much more democratic and superior.12

* * *

What has made post-Mao China so difficult to assess is that almost every aspect of its society exists in a state of unresolved contradiction. Even the most knowledgeable Westerners are uncertain whether China will cohere and eventually flourish or become fractured and fail. What is certain is that questions of China’s past and future will probably continue to revolve around Jiang Zemin for the next few years. He has been general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party since 1989, chairman of the Central Military Commission since 1991, and state president since 1993; he is described as “the center” of China’s post-Deng “third-generation core leadership.” Yet until Bruce Gilley’s informative new book Tiger on the Brink and Willy Lo-Lap Lam’s The Era of Jiang Zemin,13 no scholar or journalist had written at length about his life in English. Indeed, it is hard to find objective information about him, even in Chinese.14

There are two reasons for this biographical vacuum. First, despite China’s reforms and the often startling ways in which its society has become more open during the last two decades, when it comes to news about top leaders, the mass media are still heavily controlled. Virtually everything that gets printed or broadcast about Jiang and his colleagues is edited by the Party’s Propaganda Department to make sure it is sufficiently hagiographic. Second, and more significant, Jiang’s dogged progress through the Party hierarchy has been remarkably undramatic, hardly comparable to the lives of such leaders as Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping.

This presents something of a challenge for Gilley, a Canadian journalist who has written as both a China and a Hong Kong correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review. What is interesting about Gilley’s book, however, is that while Jiang has often been portrayed as something of a political and intellectual lightweight, Gilley seems to have gained from his research a grudging respect for him. He emerges in this book as more impressive—particularly for his shrewdness in dealing with shifting currents of power—than many have thought.


Born in 1926, the Year of the Tiger, into a well-to-do, traditional family in the Yangtze River Valley city of Yangzhou from whom he received a classical Chinese education, Jiang hovered around the edges of momentous political events in his youth. As an engineering student, he took part peripherally in underground Communist activities, joining the Party in 1946. Then, he went to work at an American-owned plant that made Pretty Lady-brand popsicle sticks and for a soap factory. He survived the mass political movements that shook Maoist China largely by keeping his head down and doing what was asked of him, even when he found the Party directives—for example, to take part in ideological purges—to be distasteful. He made whatever compromises and accommodations the times seemed to require, such as abandoning a cherished but supposedly “bourgeois” hairstyle during the Cultural Revolution. He was, it seems, a capable electrical engineer and an obedient Party member, but little more. He was liked by his peers and subordinates for his friendliness and lack of pretension, but he was not the sort of man who strongly impressed anyone.

The high points of his early career were his visits to several “fraternal” revolutionary countries. In April of 1955, after the USSR had become China’s “socialist big brother,” since it had a much more technologically advanced industrial sector than China, he was sent for a year to Moscow to work at the vast Stalin Autoworks. He hadn’t been eager to leave China, but he made the most of his experience, walking in the city and practicing his Russian with whomever he could when he wasn’t studying the factory’s power supply. He tried to acquaint himself with Russian culture, music, and food. This was only two years after Stalin’s death, when the political maneuvering among his would-be successors was still intense and a subject of constant speculation. Neither Gilley nor anyone else seems to have much idea of Jiang’s impressions of Stalin’s socialism, but his experience in Moscow must at the least have been instructive about the workings of power politics.

In 1970 he was sent on an aid mission to Ceauåüsescu’s Romania, where he led a team ordered to draw up new plans for fifteen machinery plants, a task that was both technical and diplomatic. He later wrote that this trip “really opened my eyes to the world,” although he never said just what he learned from it. But these voyages abroad seem remarkable only in contrast to the rest of the first fifty years of his life. He had survived turbulent times and was a mildly successful technocrat, helped by his knowledge of electronics, but he was hardly someone who seemed destined to assume high office.

By 1976, he was working in Beijing, at the Ministry of Machine Building, in its foreign affairs bureau. On October 6, the Gang of Four was arrested, and the Cultural Revolution started to wind down. From that point on Jiang’s career began an almost uninterrupted ascent. Shanghai had been the Gang of Four’s stronghold; reasserting control over the city was essential to the success of the coup that displaced them. This task was largely entrusted to a fourteen-person “Central Committee Shanghai Work Group.” As a trusted Party member and a native of Shanghai with engineering experience, Jiang was named to this group and given primary responsibility for the city’s industry and transportation system. It was an important promotion, but its real significance, according to Gilley, was that it gave the first indication “that Jiang was slowly sloughing off his engineering past and emerging as a party leader.”

* * *

Although the job lasted less than a year, another promotion was soon to come. In August 1980 he was made a vice chairman of two important commissions, charged, among other duties, with planning the four Special Economic Zones, or SEZs, in which capitalist-style foreign investment was to be encouraged in China. Establishing these zones was among the most important and symbolic achievements of Deng’s early tenure as paramount leader. While serving on the commission, Jiang visited countries from Singapore to Mexico to report on their methods of processing exports. On his return, he vigorously promoted the SEZs. Consequently, as Gilley says, he could later “rightfully claim to be one of the founders of the SEZs and a key general on the battlefront of Deng’s economic reforms.”

In 1983 he was appointed the head of the Ministry of Electronics. By this time it had become clear to him that China could not continue the Soviet model. He advocated a huge effort to modernize China’s telephone and other communications systems. At about the same time, and even more portentous for his future, he was promoted within the Party to the approximately two-hundred-member Party Central Committee. This made him a member of the so-called “third generation of leaders” which would succeed Deng. By 1985, when he was appointed mayor of Shanghai, his position within that generation had been confirmed.

Jiang’s impressive ascent over the decade between 1976 and 1985 owed much to his knack for mastering a variety of different skills. In the early 1980s he began referring to himself as “Mr. Tiger Balm,” a self-deprecating Chinese equivalent of “jack-of-all-trades,” because he had learned just enough to get by in the wide variety of tasks the Party had assigned him. But he also had great luck. It is doubtful that his reformist inclinations could have expressed themselves had Deng Xiaoping not come to power and issued the surprising slogan “To get rich is glorious.” As it happened, however, the brand of low-key reformism Jiang seems always to have instinctively favored had just the right combination of economic pragmatism, moral expedience, and political savvy for the times.

Most important, though, as Gilley writes, Jiang was extremely adroit at negotiating his way through the Chinese power system, in which “the informal politics of personal connections and shifting alliances is far more important than the formal legislative process.” His optimistic, unthreatening personality and ideological flexibility served him very well in this asystemic system. (Among Chinese, people such as Jiang have been known as the fengpai, or “wind faction,” because they tend to blow in whatever direction official breezes gust.) He was able to cultivate many allies—from childhood friends with whom he had stayed in touch, and who had become Party members themselves, to the conservative Chen Yun, Party elder, Central Advisory Commission chairman, and second only to Deng in the overall Party hierarchy, whom he impressed by demonstrating how integrated circuit boards worked when he was minister of electronics.

Of all his allies, none was more important to his future prospects than his patron and old friend from Shanghai, Wang Daohan. He first met Wang when working at the soap factory in 1949, and Wang liked him immediately. Luckily, Wang preceded him both on the commissions responsible for the SEZs and as mayor of Shanghai. Though Wang never rose higher than the mayoralty—he now is charged with carrying on a “dialogue” with Taiwan at a time when across the Taiwan Straits relations are growing ever more tense—his patronage was perhaps the single most important factor in Jiang’s career. When Wang turned seventy and retired in 1985, he apparently recommended that Jiang replace him as mayor.

* * *

In December 1986, when student demonstrations first broke out in Shanghai, Jiang as mayor was careful not to use force in dealing with them, and the protests soon lost momentum. By 1989, when student demonstrations again erupted in Shanghai, Jiang had become the municipal Party secretary. As in 1986, he tried first to conciliate. Attempting to use dialogue and persuasion rather than confrontation and force, he even went so far as to go into the streets himself to tell protesters, “Your patriotism and aspirations are admirable,” something that hard-line leaders in Beijing steadfastly refused to do. Although Jiang also firmly supported Li Peng’s May 20 declaration of martial law, he resisted calling armed troops into Shanghai. It was a crucial decision, because it left Jiang’s name untainted by bloodshed, making his political future possible.

But while Shanghai’s leaders earned a reputation for moderation in their handling of students, Jiang was also seen as something of a hard-line Party loyalist because of his punitive treatment that same spring of the Shanghai-based weekly World Economic Herald. One of the most independent-minded and interesting newspapers published in China during the late 1980s, the Herald became a catalyst for political dissent as demonstrations grew that April. When the paper’s Beijing bureau chief, Zhang Weiguo, organized a conference to honor the deposed and recently deceased liberal Party chief Hu Yaobang, and when the editor, Qin Benli, insisted on publishing the proceedings of the conference in a special issue of his paper, Jiang fired Qin. As Gilley points out, however, “Jiang did not suppress this symbol of Shanghai’s reviving cosmopolitanism willingly. He tried compromise first and might have held off longer if the official climate had not changed in Beijing.”

Just as Jiang was confronted with the Herald‘s praise of Hu Yaobang, however, The People’s Daily ran its famously hard-line April 26 editorial—approved by Deng himself—entitled “It Is Necessary to Take a Clear-Cut Stand to Oppose the Turmoil.” Since it harshly denounced student demonstrators in Beijing,15 regional leaders suddenly found themselves with much less flexibility in dealing with dissident activity in their own cities. “Radicals on both sides,” Gilley writes, “had forced Jiang and Qin to act in ways that they probably would have preferred to avoid.” Nevertheless, if among reformers Jiang’s confrontation with the World Economic Herald left him stigmatized as an adversary of a free press, the sacking of Qin was further evidence of Jiang’s loyalty to the Party central, and to Deng Xiaoping.

Still, no one expected that it would be Jiang whom Deng would hastily summon back to Beijing in late May, after Zhao Ziyang had been dismissed as Party general secretary and put under house arrest for being too sympathetic to student demonstrators. “Immediate reaction at home and abroad was one of disbelief,” Gilley writes. Jiang himself was stunned to learn that Deng wanted to appoint him the new Party general secretary. (He later told Yale University professor Chao Hao-sheng that when he was asked to take Zhao’s position, he felt as if he was “standing on the brink of a deep ravine.”) That he was still something of a political outsider, and that he was known to have been adaptable to political winds and was not strongly identified with any political or military faction in the capital undoubtedly helped him get the job. “It was precisely this shallow factional support that was at once his greatest strength and his greatest weakness,” writes Gilley. While Jiang may not have been many people’s first choice, he at least had few enemies.

* * *

On June 24, when Jiang’s appointment as Party general secretary was officially announced, many observers equated him with Hua Guofeng, Mao’s hapless and short-lived successor. Few imagined that Jiang would fare any better than Deng’s last two jiebanren, or “successors apparent,” Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Jiang hadn’t impressed most observers with any exceptional accomplishments during his mayoralty of Shanghai. In some circles, in fact, he had become known as “the flowerpot”—as the Israeli Sinologist Ellis Joffe has put it, “decorative but ineffectual.”16

Since then, though, Jiang has defied predictions that he would be no more than a “transitional figure.” By the time of Deng’s death in February 1997, Jiang had restored China to a rapid and relatively stable, if sometimes troubled, path of economic development—inflation was under control, and GDP had grown at an average rate of 11.2 percent between 1986 and 1997, the highest in the world. Under his regime China also managed to avoid the worst of the Asian economic meltdown and to maintain relative political calm. Not only does he now occupy all the major offices except that of premier, having steadily increased his influence within the Party, government, security, and military establishments, but he has further consolidated his power by bringing three other former Shanghai mayors—Premier Zhu Rongji, Vice-Premier Wu Banguo, and Party Secretary Huang Ju—onto the Politburo.

Jiang has accomplished all this by blurring ideological distinctions and playing down factional struggles. A recent People’s Daily editorial described him as “a principal violinist” in an orchestra. Jiang allows himself to be described as zong gongchengshi, or “chief engineer.”17 Indeed, he seems more at ease with the idea of himself as prima inter pares in a collective leadership than any of his predecessors. Whether out of weakness or strength, he has acted more as a consensus builder than as an autocratic “big leader.” In fact, he takes particular exception to insinuations by critical foreigners that he is a “dictator.”

This cautious path has helped Jiang to consolidate his position. “He has committed minor sins,” Gilley writes, “but he is not a man to hate.” When the Dutch journalist and author Willem van Kemenade, author of the recent China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Inc., asked the daughter of a prominent Chinese general what she thought Jiang’s merits were, she replied with what has become a not uncommon view among highly placed Chinese: “He has no merit, but there is peace and stability and that’s the most important thing.”

But while Jiang’s nonconfrontational style has helped him rise to power, it has also lent itself to the impression that he is a man without a moral or intellectual core.18 So far as he possesses one, Jiang’s political philosophy might be described as get along by going along. In the absence of any new political vision, and after all the Sturm und Drang of Maoism, Jiang seems to have decided that trying to be a “Mr. Comrade Nice Guy,” a man who avoids extremes, would be sufficient to fill the void. In an introduction to a Chinese-language volume of essays on Jiang entitled Guanjian shike, or “Critical Moment,” his close adviser the former vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Liu Ji, describes Jiang’s centrism this way: “We make no attempt to conceal the fact that we are in the reformist faction of socialism. We are opposed to every kind of extreme position…. Extremism of the left and right will both bring disaster on China.” This purported aversion to extremism did not, however, provoke Jiang into making any public utterance to temper the wave of recent anti-Western feeling. Indeed, although the anger of many of the demonstrators against the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was certainly genuine, there is every sign that the Party exacerbated it, by helping to organize their protests.


Before he died in April 1995, Chen Yun compared China’s new market economy to a capitalist bird growing up inside a socialist cage. Because he viewed the prevailing attitude of “everything for money” as “a decadent capitalist idea,” the prospect that this bird would someday break out of its cage was not one that Chen welcomed. But under Jiang it seems possible that Chen’s prediction will come to pass and that in the process the edifice of yiyan tang, the “temple with one voice” that has been maintained by the Party for so long, will continue crumbling until it no longer exists. This is perhaps the most optimistic view of China’s future, and “peaceful evolution” is not such a bad way to describe it.

But hopes for “peaceful evolution” must be seen as extremely optimistic. Not only does the Party officially oppose the notion, but under the surface in China things are not so peaceful. While the Party continues to lock up dissidents for long sentences, the spread of information technology, including access to the Internet, is giving some Chinese vastly enlarged opportunities to link up with the outside world. Corruption and nepotism are rampant at every level of government, business, and the military, creating a public disaffection that is perhaps the greatest threat to China’s political stability. Additionally, China is beset by a profound crisis of belief; the workforce is swelling with migrant laborers—estimated to be over one hundred million—and unemployed factory workers; the environmental degradation that has been one of the most shameful products of communism around the world is particularly appalling in China; and the displacement of over a million Chinese by the Three Gorges dam project has only begun to be confronted. China is also plagued by the threat of an unmanageably large and growing population, by floods, by an arbitrary legal system, and by an obsolete and rigid Communist Party that may well be pushed to defend itself by force. When the Party has been challenged in the last few years—as with the April Falun Gong protest—it has seemed utterly confounded.

But what may prove even more troubling for the current Chinese government’s relations with its own people, not to mention the world beyond, is xenophobic nationalism, which since the Opium Wars has ever been incipient. Chinese leaders have all too often been tempted to play on latent and still deep-seated chauvinist sentiments in an effort to gain the appearance of “being at one with the masses,” as Party rhetoric has it.

Born of China’s historical insularity and then exacerbated by a century and a half of victimization after British gunboats arrived off the South China coast in the mid-nineteenth century, this sensitivity to even the appearance of humiliation at the hands of foreigners has not changed. For weak Chinese governments with few other sources of legitimacy, the antiforeign card has all too often been irresistible—whether played against opium traders, missionaries, colonialists, imperialists, CIA agents, businessmen, or human rights advocates. And not to be forgotten is the fact that anti-foreignism is a particularly potent political force when mixed with spiritual cults like Falun Gong or the unresolved issue of Taiwan, which the Party tends to view as a craven American protectorate. However, because there is still a large underground reservoir of such sentiment, the official encouragement of antiforeign demonstrations could prove very dangerous. No matter how well officially orchestrated, in the past they have too frequently had a way of gaining a spontaneous and often antigovernment life of their own.

* * *

Even if China can free itself from its revolutionary past and manage to keep on the precarious course of “peaceful evolution,” it seems doubtful that Jiang has the intellect or character to become a true “architect” of its future rather than just a cautious “engineer” capable of keeping the trains running for a while. He has given no sign of being able to sponsor a serious debate on China’s most pressing problems or on the different directions in which China might move. Instead, he has presided, as he will on October 1, as a kind of “virtual” leader. Whatever happens to Jiang in the years before he retires—he is scheduled to relinquish his posts during the prelude to the 2002 Sixteenth Party Congress—his tenure of just over ten years will probably be remembered as a time during which the question of China’s future identity—as well as its unexamined past—was merely deferred, albeit peacefully. For few countries are in a state of more awkward denial about their histories than China.

Gilley does not say much about the future. What he provides is some much-needed biographical information about a cautious, practical, and not very interesting man whom fate heaved up onto the world stage to “lead” China. Jiang’s mystery, such as it is, is that he has survived as long as he has, and that China, for all its ongoing political repression, spiritual hunger, and smoldering tensions, has been as stable and prosperous as it has under his guidance. And nowhere is the provisional nature of the “stability” under Jiang more evident than in the Falun Gong protests and the Party’s panicky response to them. But as a Chinese friend recently told me, “Jiang’s durability is not so surprising. After Mao and all the revolutionary drama of the early part of the century, what most Chinese want now is not an interesting and charismatic leader, but someone dull who can just mind the store.” The real mystery is what will happen if the customers ever begin to demand that the store itself needs changing.

  1. See "The Dalai Lama on Succession and the CIA," The New York Review, June 10, 1999, pp. 48-49.
  2. This past year or so some surprising statements and publications have appeared in China, making one wonder if Jiang is not preparing his place in history by obliquely pursuing a policy of political reform. There have been several examples of young officials or researchers associated with Jiang, such as the former vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Science, Liu Ji, making statements or issuing reports on bold reform plans.
  3. See Allen S. Whiting, "Chinese Nationalism and Foreign Policy After Deng," The China Quarterly, No. 142 (June 1995), and David Shambaugh, Beautiful Imperialist: China Perceives America, 1972-1990 (Princeton University Press, 1991).
  4. In the October 8, 1998, issue of The New York Review, Liu Binyan and Perry Link reported on a book, China's Pitfall, by He Qinglian, a Fudan University-trained economist, that chronicles the corrupt dark side of reform and China's "economic miracle," including the economic privileges accorded to children of high officials. (The human rights activist Wei Jingsheng recently charged, in Willam Safire's June 3, 1999, New York Times column, that Jiang Zemin's son is a billionaire.) Somehow, after being published in Hong Kong the book also appeared in China itself.

    A Beijing University literature student, Yu Jie, has also managed to publish a volume of so-called chouti wenxue, or "desk-drawer literature" (so named because, being unpublishable, it was left in desk drawers) about the collapse of morality and civility and the rise of political tyranny in China. And then there have recently been a number of reformist statements circulated within China, such as former Fuzhou City official Fang Jue's bold manifesto, "China Needs a New Transformation: Program Proposals of the Democratic Faction." Issued in November 1998 and published in English by China Rights Forum in its spring 1998 issue, it ringingly declares: "China approaches the threshold of a new century, in which without fundamental transformation, it will be impossible to further promote modernization, impossible to obtain the consensus and support of the different generations and classes of its people, and impossible to be truly accepted in the civilized world."
  5. See Human Rights in China, December 16, 1998, release, "State Security: A Tool of Repression at the trials of Wang Youcai and Qin Yongmin."
  6. The Wall Street Journal, May 12, 1999, p. A1, and The New York Times, June 30, 1999, p. A4. The Falun Gong has also made good use of the Internet to organize its members.
  7. The historical sensitivity toward foreign interference created broad receptivity to the revolutionary anti-imperialism that Mao borrowed from Lenin. Such sentiment continues to manifest itself today over issues such as human rights. When China has been criticized by the West for failing to live up to international rights standards, party propagandists have been quick to dismiss such complaints as just another a form of foreign hectoring and bullying that began in the Opium Wars in the 1840s, designed to infringe on Chinese sovereignty.
  8. The notion of "peaceful evolution" arose in the 1950s during the era of John Foster Dulles, when leaders in Beijing cautioned against a Western plot to peacefully subvert Chinese socialism by means of capitalism and Western values, rather than by direct military force. Because of these connotations, the concept of "peaceful evolution" has been widely mistrusted in China as a ruse to underhandedly overthrow Communist Party rule.
  9. Leaders within China who frequently discussed "peaceful evolution" and its sibling "bourgeois liberalization" provided Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro with the litany of cold war-like and often pugnacious quotes included in their controversial book The Coming Conflict with China (Knopf, 1997). They highlighted the possibility that China's abiding suspicions about the West's motives could lead to conflict, especially if the West failed to appreciate the nature of this ongoing antagonism.
  10. It is interesting to note that despite the Clinton administration's grand hopes for "constructive engagement" and the President's nine-day summit trip to China last summer, virtually no concessions were forthcoming either during or after Clinton's visit. However, just prior to Premier Zhu Rongji's state visit to the US at the beginning of April, China did make major concessions to gain entry in the World Trade Organization, suggesting that when large economic interests are at stake, old emotions can be set aside and real give-and-take is possible. Since the Belgrade embassy bombing these negotiations have been halted.
  11. Traditional texts on statecraft are filled with admonitions to leaders to remain aloof, even unseen, thereby creating an aura of unknowable and unfathomable power. As the second-century BC text The Huainanzi puts it, "There are no footprints in the court that is overgrown with wild grass; there are no weeds in the field that has been well-cleared. Thus the most excellent ruler is one of whom his subjects know only that he exists."
  12. Willem van Kemenade, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Inc. (Knopf, 1997), p. 383.
  13. Prentice Hall, 1999.
  14. Gilley's bibliography cites only a few Chinese-language works of any consequence. They include: Yang Zhongmei's Jiang Zemin zhuan (A Biography of Jiang Zemin) published in Taiwan by the China Times Publishing Company in 1996; Zheng Yi's Jiang Zemin zhuanji (A Biography of Jiang Zemin), published in Hong Kong by Mingchuang Publishing in 1994; and Li Guoqiang's Jiang Zemin pouxi (Jiang Zemin in Depth), published in Hong Kong by Wide Angle Press in 1989. While not official Party versions of Jiang, neither are they thoroughly unpolemical or well-sourced works of scholarship. Instead, they belong to the tradition of what scholars used to call yeshi, or "wild histories," which often rely on anecdote, stories, eyewitness accounts, and historical apocrypha. Yeshi were distinguished from zhengshi, or "official histories," which were written by court historians with the help of authoritative official documents. Gilley acknowledges that there may be other, more serious works on Jiang written in Japanese of which he is unaware.
  15. While previously the 1986-1987 student demonstrators had only been accused of naoshi, "creating disturbances," Deng Xiaoping ordered that the term dongluan, or "sowing turmoil," be used in his April 26 People's Daily editorial. By doing so, he raised the stakes considerably and made it all the more difficult for Jiang to be temperate in his handling of the demonstrations in Shanghai.
  16. See Ellis Joffe's piece, published in the Journal of East Asian Affairs (Winter-Spring 1997) and in The China Reader: The Reform Years, edited by Orville Schell and David Shambaugh (Vintage, 1999).
  17. One might describe Jiang's chosen title as being on the bottom of an inverted pyramid of pretension. Zong gongchengshi, "chief engineer," is a rather modest moniker, especially when compared to the far more grandiose weidade duoshou, "Great Helmsman," chosen by Mao Zedong, or zong shejishi, "chief architect," adopted by Deng Xiaoping.
  18. This is perhaps understandable—after all, he has grown up in a society that has suffered a dizzying succession of ideological cancellations and reversals. Traditional Confucianism was repudiated by the May Fourth Movement "new culture" in the 1920s and replaced by Chiang Kai-shek's East-West syncretism in the 1930s. This was followed by Mao's revolutionary anti-Western, Marxist-style class struggle in the 1950s. Mao's revolutionary ideology was, in turn, replaced by Deng's market reformism and endorsement of wealth as "glorious" in the 1980s.