For unlikely Chinese leader, a legacy of peaceful change

`Cautious' Jiang oversaw time of calm, development

October 23, 2002|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - It reveals something about Jiang Zemin's leadership of China that in the eyes of many, the greatest legacy he could leave would be to give up that leadership, as he is soon expected to do.

If that's not a rousing endorsement, rousing is a word not usually associated with Jiang, 76, who is to relinquish his post as Communist Party general secretary next month and the presidency in March.

Jiang, who is visiting the United States this week and meeting Friday with President Bush in Texas, succeeded two larger-than-life icons of modern history, Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping. By contrast, Jiang is described as "bland," "cautious" and "uninspiring." In 13 years in power, he has tried to create a cult of personality like his predecessors', without success.

For just that reason, scholars and political observers say, Jiang may have been the right man for China at the right time. The country, roiled by Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution and radically transformed by Deng's economic reforms, stood to profit from a period of calm.

"You can't revolutionize a country if you want to develop it," said a Western diplomat here. "China probably needed someone with less character than Mao. [Jiang] is uninspiring, and that's what China needed, an uninspiring leader. Because inspiration has done a lot of bad things for China."

Should Jiang step down peacefully, making room for Vice President Hu Jintao, it would be the first time in Communist China's history that power has changed hands without bloodshed, a leader's death or purges.

A fitting capstone

Jiang is giving up his post reluctantly, some say, and wants to remain influential, but in an authoritarian system, even such a handover counts as progress. And it would serve, they say, as a fitting capstone to Jiang's tenure, an era of stability and progress at a time when China sorely needed both.

Making what is likely his final visit to the United States as China's leader, Jiang represents a nation with a fast-growing economy, an improving image on human rights and an increasing hand in international affairs, including membership in the World Trade Organization and the prize of playing host to the 2008 Summer Olympics. Most notably, Jiang is firmly in charge at the end of a 13-year reign.

Such circumstances were virtually unimaginable in 1989, when the Shanghai party chief rose to power in the aftermath of the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

With a somewhat unpolished public persona and a cautious political disposition, the bespectacled engineer from a Yangtze River town was widely viewed then as a short-term fix. Jiang was an inoffensive choice to succeed Zhao Ziyang, his ousted predecessor as general secretary and a reformer who advocated a conciliatory approach to widespread student demonstrations.

"He came into power in very unsettled circumstances," said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago.

At first, Jiang's claim to power was nominal: Deng, the man who anointed him, was still China's de facto leader, and unlike Mao and Deng, Jiang did not have credentials as a war hero.

The country he took over was struggling mightily with a transition to a market economy and suffering from divisions among its leaders over the path the government should take.

Since then, as Bruce Gilley describes it in his biography Tiger on the Brink, Jiang has guided China in the direction of a "developmental dictatorship" along the lines of Singapore and Malaysia, "coupling economic and social freedoms with strict political and media controls."

Socialist ideology, redefined under Deng, was redefined again almost to the point of absurdity. Now Jiang wants the party to amend its constitution to welcome capitalist entrepreneurs.

Jiang has maneuvered China to this point with much help and little boldness. That was especially true in his first few years.

"He'd sit on the fence and blow whichever way the wind blows," said Richard Baum, author of Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Age of Deng Xiaoping.

In a 1991 speech, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Baum said, Jiang spoke of "class struggle," language dating to the Cultural Revolution that made him appear conservative.

A critical turning point arrived in early 1992, when Deng traveled through southern China to campaign for accelerated economic reforms. It was a cause strongly opposed by conservative elements in the party. Jiang ultimately backed Deng.

"His support at that particular time, I think, helped rescue the reforms," Baum said. "And from that time on, there was no going back. That was the last critical branching point, when the conservatives could have reversed the reforms and didn't."

As Deng faded, Jiang consolidated his power. He quelled serious challenges from within the party. He won over the military, in part by providing fatter budgets. He even managed to persuade the military to divest itself of business interests.

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