Jiang attempts to put crown on successful year Once seen as vulnerable, he solidifies grip on power

October 24, 1997|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- If this week's summit with President Clinton goes well, Chinese President Jiang Zemin will have capped off an extraordinarily successful year as the head of the world's largest country.

In less than 10 months, he will have overseen the funeral of China's paramount ruler, Deng Xiaoping, managed the smooth return of Hong Kong, consolidated his power at the Communist Party's 15th Congress and met as an equal with the leader of the world's only superpower.

Not bad for a karaoke-singing, 71-year-old engineer from Shanghai viewed by many as a political lightweight incapable of surviving atop the cutthroat world of Chinese politics.

"President Jiang in many ways reminds me of an American speaker of the House in the sense that he seems to know everybody's name," said a senior official at the U.S. Embassy here, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I think he's got a very fine-tuned political antenna, which came as a little bit of a surprise, quite frankly."

A former mayor of Shanghai, Jiang was chosen by Deng for the powerful job of general secretary of the Communist Party just after the crackdown on the pro-democracy demonstrators occupying Tiananmen Square in 1989. Many believed he was a compromise candidate and some viewed him as a temporary figure. His cautious approach and apparent lack of any clear vision earned him the nickname "Weather vane."

Over the years, though, he has proved to be much more shrewd than expected. Although he lacked military experience, he courted People's Liberation Army leaders and won promotions for supporters to expand his power base.

In July, while the world watched, he presided over the successful return of Hong Kong after more than 150 years of British rule. The day after the handover, he tolerated protests by thousands of Hong Kong residents demanding freedom for jailed dissidents and democracy in China.

In September, he surprised many by forcing his major rival, Qiao Shi, from the party leadership to further consolidate power, and he called for increased private ownership of the nation's failing state-owned enterprises.

While 1997 has been a great year for Jiang in China, he may have a much harder time in the United States.

With slicked-back hair, huge, square-framed glasses and pants that he seems to wear up around his rib cage, he appears neither charismatic nor dynamic. Given to speeches filled with stultifying communist rhetoric, he may also have trouble connecting with Americans on a substantive level.

Those who have spent time with him, though, say he can be quite relaxed in person and occasionally provocative when he strays from his script.

Reading a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt recently, Jiang remarked to a visitor that he could learn something from the president. To curtail stock market speculation, Roosevelt hired the chief manipulator, Joseph Kennedy, to straighten out the problem.

Jiang said he might do the same thing with the Shanghai stock market, 'but he couldn't figure out who the chief manipulator was," a U.S. official said.

Pub Date: 10/24/97

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