Jiang Zemin’s passing this week will have no major political repercussions in China. Unlike Deng Xiaoping’s death in 1997, which helped Jiang to step out of Deng’s shadow and lead with more confidence and style, today Xi Jinping is in firm control of Chinese politics and foreign policy.
Jiang led China throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, leaving a lasting impact on the country’s politics and foreign relations. He will be remembered, among other things, as a leader who paved the way for China’s emergence as a global power. He had a charismatic personality, a rarity among Chinese leaders. One can attribute many of China’s current achievements, as well as its problems, to policies initiated during Jiang’s tenure.
Several achievements stand out as we look back at the 1990s and early 2000s. First, Jiang kept the momentum of reform and opening up after the brief setback of the late 1980s. Second, he and Premier Zhu Rongji pushed for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) through the reform of the state-owned enterprises and the mending of fences with the United States. Third, his theory of “Three Represents” expanded the membership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and fundamentally changed the party structure while promoting entrepreneurship in China.
China was diplomatically isolated and at a crossroads about its future after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. The reform and opening-up policy initiated a decade earlier by Deng Xiaoping was in jeopardy. It was at this juncture that Deng handpicked Jiang, then party secretary of Shanghai, to be the new CCP general secretary. The engineer-turned-politician was reportedly not taken seriously and viewed as a transitionary figure by some party officials as well as by foreign observers.
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Jiang proved to be shrewd and skillful, outmaneuvering myriad political rivals and consolidating his power over the party and military in a few years. This culminated in his designation as the core of the PRC’s third generation of leadership since 1949. He installed key allies and protégés throughout the party and government and headed the powerful “Shanghai clique,” even after retirement.
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Deng’s 1992 “southern tour” jump started the stalled reform process. Aided by the capable Zhu Rongji, first vice premier then premier, Jiang kept the momentum of reform and opening up throughout the 1990s. With a leader in Beijing that appeared to appreciate Western cultures, foreign investment flooded into China, turning it into the world’s factory. During Jiang’s term as the CCP general secretary from 1989 to 2002, China’s economy tripled in size, eventually overtaking Japan as the world’s second largest economy in 2010.
Relations between the United States and China were at a historic low point after 1989. Though tensions began to thaw in the early 1990s, the relationship suffered a heavy blow during the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis. Differences over human rights and trade also hampered relations.
Jiang traveled to the United States for an official visit in 1997, the first by a Chinese head of state in 12 years. During the visit Jiang launched a charm offensive by ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, engaging in a heated debate with President Bill Clinton on human rights during a live press conference, and lauding friendship and cooperation between the two countries in a speech at Harvard University.
Jiang was familiar with American history and could recite Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in English. He began his 1997 visit to the United States with a simple but significant gesture by laying flowers at one of the sites at Pearl Harbor where American sailors were killed in the Japanese attack of December 7, 1941.
Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Joseph W. Prueher, who would later serve as U.S. ambassador to China from 1999 to 2001, recounted Jiang’s stopover in Hawaii, where some locals protested during a reception. Jiang reportedly bantered with Prueher, saying we were all like this “when we were young.” The Chinese leader also handled protests during his speech at Harvard diplomatically by joking that he had to speak louder to outshout the protesters.
Clinton paid a return visit to China in 1998. It was during this visit that Clinton uttered the United States’ “three noes” policy regarding Taiwan: not supporting independence for Taiwan; not supporting any solution that creates “two Chinas” or one China and one Taiwan; and not supporting Taiwan’s admission to organizations where statehood is a requirement for membership, such as the United Nations. The “three noes” was considered a concession to Beijing and was criticized by many in Washington and Taipei.
At home, Jiang’s theory of “Three Represents” – that the CCP represents China’s advanced productive forces, China’s advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people – reflected his thinking that the party and the state should keep pace with the times。
While encouraging Western investments, Jiang also made a historic decision to welcome China’s own businesspeople into the CCP. This significant move reinvigorated the party and boosted China’s thriving private sector. “Red capitalists” such as Alibaba’s Jack Ma helped create China’s economic miracles.
Starting in late 2002, Jiang handed over the leadership titles to his successor, Hu Jintao, first as the party boss and then as president in 2003, completing the first orderly power transfer in the PRC. However, he retained his Central Military Commission chair position until 2005 and, even after his official retirement, continued to exert political influence from behind the scenes, including over the selection of current leader Xi Jinping.
Other notable achievements of China during Jiang’s tenure include regaining sovereignty over Hong Kong and Macao, weathering the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, winning the bid to host the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and perhaps most importantly, joining the WTO in 2001.
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Jiang was one of the few Chinese leaders willing to interact with journalists. He seemed to enjoy such interactions and generally performed well, often with flair. His flamboyant personality sometimes surprised his hosts. During foreign trips, he would occasionally burst into singing, play musical instruments, or recite famous poems and speeches.
Of the many interviews he conducted, he seemed to enjoy the one with CBS’s Mike Wallace in August 2000 the most. When challenged that he was not an elected leader, Jiang defended by saying that he was elected in a Chinese style of democracy.
He once chided Hong Kong journalists for being “too simple, sometimes naive.” But many agree that the political atmosphere was relatively open under Jiang, and some would come to view the 1990s as the golden era for Chinese journalism.
Though they may disagree with his policies, many world leaders remember Jiang fondly. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres called Jiang “a steadfast advocate for international engagement” and recalled his “personal warmth and openness.” Bill Clinton in his memoir said Jiang was “intriguing, funny, and fiercely proud.”
Like other historical figures, Jiang also had failures or shortcomings in his political career. Rampant corruption was perhaps one of the biggest failures, especially with the Chinese military’s involvement in businesses, which not only contributed to corruption overall but also severely damaged the morale and image of the People’s Liberation Army. Today, corruption remains a challenge to the CCP’s rule.
Jiang’s administration did not do much to protect the environment either, with a heavy focus on GDP growth. Now China is paying the hefty cost as the biggest polluter and largest greenhouse gas emitter.
Jiang touted the benefits of “everyone making a fortune quietly” (闷声发大财) while emphasizing one-party rule instead of political reform. The crackdown on the religious group Falun Gong showed his intolerance toward challenges to the CCP’s dominance. Maintaining stability (维稳) was introduced as a strategy to protect the peaceful domestic environment for economic development, but it was often abused to clamp down on dissent, including by tightening censorship.
Undoubtedly, Jiang has a mixed legacy and people will have divergent views of him. For ordinary Chinese, however, Jiang is likely to be remembered as a leader whose achievements far outweigh his shortcomings.
An earlier version of this article was published by ThinkChina.