Jiang Zemin Unplugged

Given the leadership styles of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, who have been China’s supreme leaders over the past twelve years, it is an almost shocking experience to look back at these two videos (the first of which circulated last week on social media) of former President and Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin, who was thrust into office by Deng Xiaoping on June 24, just weeks after the Beijing Massacre in 1989, and remained in office until November 15, 2002.

In the first video, Jiang is challenging reporters from Hong Kong in October 2000 in a manner that is refreshingly candid, responsive, and direct, if highly combative.

In the second (clip starts at 1:14:43 in the embedded video, below), he is engaging in a free-form dialogue during a press conference in the Great Hall of the People with the master of such reparti, former U.S. President Bill Clinton during his 1998 state visit to Beijing. What is all the more amazing about this performance with Clinton is that just before the press conference took place, Jiang unexpectedly agreed to broadcast live all across China on both radio and television.

Watching these two videos is a striking reminder of how open Jiang was at that time, and how different from Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping in his interactions with American leaders. Although at the time Jiang was often depicted in both China and abroad as somewhat clownish—he had a penchant for singing “Oh Sole Mio” in Italian and “Home on the Range” in English and for reciting the Gettysburg Address—as these video so vividly show, he was also a man who wanted not only to engage directly with foreign leaders in a more human way, but to make China a more organic part of the cosmopolitan outside world. To accomplish this, he had to take some risks.

It is difficult to imagine any such interaction occurring under President Xi’s political watch. Like President Obama, Xi is much more reserved, undemonstrative, and opaque. One hopes that they too will find a way to overcome the ritual of summit meetings to break through in a personal way.