Members Only | November 30, 2022 | Reading Time: 8 minutes

Jiang Zemin, who opened China to markets and corruption, is dead

Most believed he’d be, at best, a transitional figure.


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Born in Yangzhou in 1926, Jiang was one of the last Chinese leaders to remember the 1949 Revolution. His father died fighting the Japanese while Jiang himself was attending National Central University in Japanese-occupied Nanjing before transferring to what is today Shanghai Jiao Tong University, in 1947. He did not play any role in the Revolution itself, but he did join the Communist Party while in college. 

Trained as an engineer, he was useful to the new regime. He was sent to the Soviet Union to get additional industrial training at the Stalin Automobile Works in Moscow and then worked for China’s First Automobile Works, making the Jiefang truck. He slowly rose through the ranks. 

Jiang put the lie to the liberal canard that democracy and capitalism would rise together hand-in-hand. If anything, the Chinese model of dictatorial capitalism became incredibly appealing to global capitalists and politicians, if for no other reason than that one could relocate production there for very cheap wages and be ensured that the government was not going to put up with any meaningful dissent

What’s pretty remarkable is how boring he really was throughout his career. He managed to come away almost totally unscathed through China’s enormous upheavals. There’s almost no public information on Jiang during the Great Leap Forward; he was just working for the party. The worst thing that happened to him during the Cultural Revolution is that he was sidelined from his main work and semi-exiled to Wuhan, but without any serious problems. He was just a good communist bureaucrat. He left the auto industry by the late 50s and became a boring apparatchik. 

Remarkably boring
When the Cultural Revolution ended, Deng Xiaoping brought Jiang back into the fold. He was deeply involved in the communist state’s transition to dictatorial capitalism. He was one of the key players in the creation of the Special Economic Zones in the South. He then joined the CP’s Central Committee in 1982. In 1985, he became mayor of Shanghai. He was reportedly quite unpopular with the people of the city, but he pushed ahead with the process of capitalizing China. Foreign businessmen loved his plans and investment started pouring into the city. In 1987, he joined the Politburo, stepping down from mayor of the city and instead becoming party secretary for Shanghai. 

In 1989, of course, China faced the unprecedented student democratization protests at Tiananmen Square. This was the boom time for Jiang. Just before the busting of the protests, he was promoted to replace Zhao Ziyang as CCP general secretary because he had a history of defusing student anger while in Shanghai and because Zhao was now seen as too liberal. He was also able to keep his distance from the repression that followed. 

When Deng retired later that year, it was Jiang who became the public face of the party, but Deng was still the real power player, working behind the scenes. Jiang understood that Deng’s real power at this point came from the personal connections he had built since the start of the Revolution and while he could not replicate that, he worked hard to build himself a personal power base. No one really saw Jiang as a significant leader up to this time. If anything, he would be a transitional figure to a real power to lead the nation. In some ways, this turned out to be true, but Jiang remained a major player for far longer than expected. 

Cheap, abundant, quiet labor
Most observers believed Jiang would be little more than a transitional figure in Chinese history. And if one considers the rapid consolidation of power under Xi Jinping, I suppose that still holds some water. 

But he really was much more than that. 

As soon as took power, he started moving the party back to the ideological push of the Mao period as a way to undermine the kind of democratic independence that had led to Tiananmen. The Central Propaganda Department increased in power. Hard to argue that this didn’t work. 

Of course, some of the real commitment to democracy by the protestors was shown to be pretty shallow once China rose economically. But decades of ideological work, no matter how counter to Marxism, has proven tremendously effective in China and Jiang deserves a lot of the credit for that, if credit is what we want to give. But Jiang was also still in a pretty tenuous position. When Deng began to criticize him in 1992 for not moving fast enough on economic reforms, Jiang got right in line. 

Jiang put the lie to the liberal canard that democracy and capitalism would rise together hand-in-hand. If anything, the Chinese model of dictatorial capitalism became incredibly appealing to global capitalists and politicians, if for no other reason than that one could relocate production there for very cheap wages and be ensured that the government was not going to put up with any meaningful dissent. In 1992, Jiang began to use the term “socialist market economy” to describe China’s new ways under Deng Xiaoping’s spirit. 

Communist capitalism
Now, all of this caused the same sort of problems that unrestrained capitalism causes everywhere. Unemployment skyrocketed, reaching 40 percent in some areas. State-owned businesses couldn’t compete with the efficiency of foreign ways and the new China didn’t have much of a safety net for those who couldn’t find work in the new nation. 

By the millions, people migrated to the cities without any attempt to ease their transition. Growing wealth in the cities ran up against horrific poverty in the countryside. Organized crime became an ever-greater problem. Both civil and military officials issued illegal bonds to steal money. That the environment was to sacrifice for any and all industrial growth was almost inevitable and the once tremendously ecologically diverse lands of China became pits of pollution, despair and extinction. 

But Jiang was primarily concerned with economic stability, believing that continued growth would eventually solve the problems, at least those he felt were worth solving. The Special Economic Zones he promoted became wealthy while the countryside remained impoverished. Always attuned to the power of state propaganda, he started a new program in 1998 dedicated to self-promotion as the nation’s leader and denunciations of opponents. 

Deng had not really used state media for personal propaganda, so for many Chinese, this was a return to Maoism, whether good or bad. He placed this pro-business ideology into CP propaganda, creating the “Three Represents” as his version of Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory. 

This actually changed the ideological foundation of the party from protecting all the people to “the overwhelming majority of the people,” as a way to make the business class happy that they could in fact oppress people in this now quite not-communist state. Leftist hardliners were pretty outraged and the Three Represents have certainly not had the ideological impact of Mao or Deng, but it’s not as if China has somehow reverted back away from capitalism under Xi. 

Feed the organ market
Jiang also wanted Falun Gong crushed. He created an entire extralegal department called the 6-10 Department just for this task. 

That the Chinese government was so threatened by a non-theistic spiritual meditation movement might seem bizarre, especially given that the government had actually promoted the movement in its early years of the 1980s. But given the history of Buddhist resistance to oppressive regimes in southeast Asia, it wasn’t too hard to see this movement as a potential site of anti-government activities, at least if that’s what you are looking for. 

As its leaders were arrested, a quasi-political movement did develop, with large demonstrations to demand their release. So for Chinese leaders, this was now a provocative challenge to their authority. 

What’s remarkable to an outside observer is how far Jiang was willing to take this. Probably 65,000 Falun Gong members were murdered just to feed the Chinese organ market over an eight-year period. At least 2,000 people were tortured to death. Many have commented that internal divisions within the Politburo significantly exacerbated this crackdown as different factions fought for power. 

Cheap shoes
As the Chinese economy continued to grow, Jiang also wanted to promote positive relations with the United States. This was also the agenda of Bill Clinton. Jiang visited the US in 1997 and gave a speech at Harvard that was interrupted by Tibetan independence demonstrators. Jiang was absolutely committed to Chinese domination over Tibet and was open to that. He gave an interesting interview to the Times in 2001 that demonstrated both his openness to improving relations with the US and the sharp limits of what China would accept in these conversations. He met with Clinton and Clinton returned the favor by visiting China in 1998. 

When NATO forces bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, Jiang didn’t do much protesting with Clinton, even if he expressed some outrage for the domestic audience. Good relations with the US were more important to him. It wasn’t that there wasn’t continued tensions, especially over Taiwan, but his pro-western foreign policy paid off big for China. 

This culminated when China received Most Favored Nation status from the US in 2001 over the protest of labor and human rights advocates. Claims that bringing China into the family of nations would improve conditions there have been proven outright false and of course the nation became the global home of cheap labor for globalized nations. 

Moreover, protests of Chinese dissidents in the US against the massive human rights violations of Jiang’s regime were largely marginalized in the US. A lot of these people were refugees in the post-Tiananmen period and had been imprisoned and tortured, including by Jiang’s henchmen. But what chance did human rights have in the face of cheap shoes? 

As a general rule, Jiang sought better relations with all his neighbors, even Taiwan to some extent. In recent times, he has come under criticism within China for not being as aggressive nationalist as Xi Jinping and other leaders. 

But he was fairly conciliatory toward Russia, working with Boris Yeltsin to settle longstanding border disputes, outraging nationalist who demand a maximalist China, as well as working out the Sino-Russian Treaty of Friendship with Vladimir Putin in 2001 to lay out a framework for long-term cooperation. 

Many observers have placed a great deal of blame for the obscene growth of corruption in China at Jiang’s feet. While I am sure it is a lot more complicated than this, he certainly tolerated more than his fair share. 

Quite a few of his close cronies were arrested for corruption after Xi Jinping took power. This was especially true in the military, where Hu Jintao was supposed to be in charge, but was constantly undercut by his subordinates and close Jiang associates Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, both known for taking huge bribes in exchange for their assistance. 

With personal connections meaning more than skill, the Chinese CP became increasingly devoid of anything but a power structure, with lesser talents with connections moving up the ladder and skilled but less connected people unable to do so without the required money. 

Thwarted comeback
In 2002, Jiang began the process of moving on from leadership. He didn’t just disappear of course. But he left the Politburo Standing Committee and stepped down as General Secretary to let a new generation lead. The so-called Fourth Generation was led by Hu Jintao, who was a pretty weak leader in his own right. Most of the leaders of the new Politburo were close to Jiang, with six of the nine having been part of his Shanghai Clique, who had served under him there.

Jiang did remain head of the Central Military Commission until 2004, but this was more ceremonial than anything else, as the CMC is dominated by top generals. He probably was being pushed aside entirely. He was supposed to be head of the CMC until 2007 and he mostly disappeared from public life except as a senior figure to show every now and again after 2004. 

He would stand next to Hu at major events such as the Beijing Olympics, major anniversary events and other important events for public consumption. But that’s about it. 

However, in 2012, stories came out that Jiang, then 86 years old, was attempting to reassert his power. This was at a moment when central power in China seemed to be diminishing. Hu was pretty weak and Jiang hadn’t been a titan either. But then Xi took power and put down Jiang’s attempts to again have access to power very quickly, becoming the nation’s most powerful leader since Deng, if not Mao. 

In the end, Jiang has to be seen as an important figure in modern Chinese history, but a lesser leader compared to Mao, Deng or Xi, presumably. 

He didn’t transform the nation particularly. He did lead it through a period of growing stability, but one dominated by intense environmental problems and a legacy of inequality. He was involved in consolidating power in the state post-Tiananmen, but also is limited by that same legacy. 

His Three Represents disappeared almost immediately from Chinese ideology after he left power, even as China continued on its road to state controlled capitalism. The corruption of his era is an overwhelming part of his legacy. He did do a good job of settling tensions between China and other powerful nations, but for a nationalistic population, this is not always seen as a positive, especially when Taiwan remains outside the nation. 

Erik Loomis is the Editorial Board's obituarist. An associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, he's the author most recently of A History of America in Ten Strikes (New Press). He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money. Find him @ErikLoomis.

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