The term of Jiang Zemin, the let’s say successor of Deng Xiaoping, is fascinating to observe not because he has a similar legacy to put on the table (hint: he doesn’t) but rather because he was someone who was able to make the most of the cards he was dealt politically and as such, his career represents a textbook example to what can be done in China by understanding its political system and making it work in your favor… with the good, bad and ugly that derive from that.
Jiang Zemin was anything but a political superstar such as the more likable figure Zhao Ziyang, who many expected to take over. That, however, didn’t happen. The key to understanding Jiang Zemin’s accession to power is represented by 1989’s Tiananmen Square protests. Zhao Ziyang was perceived by the Chinese political system as too accommodating when it came to the students involved in the protests and thereby unacceptable as the next de facto leader of China, with Jiang Zemin being chosen by Deng Xiaoping as a compromise.
To put it differently, Jiang Zemin was the type of career politician whom you don’t expect to rock the boat, something Deng Xiaoping considered vital given the volatile nature of the political and geopolitical landscape during and after the Tiananmen Square protests. The “urbanite” Jiang Zemin, like many who wanted to do well in the Communist Party of China, had lived in Shanghai and was more than accustomed to the way the Chinese political system worked. On the one hand, he was not seen as “too progressive” (unlike Zhao Ziyang) but on the other hand, he was seen as progressive enough due to handling the Shanghai dimension of the protests without the use of excessive violence but rather through dialogue and compromise. Again, “compromise” is the operative word when describing Jiang Zemin’s career.
Many expected him to be a “placeholder leader” until the political situation allowed for a permanent leader to emerge but through a combination between adaptability and in many cases Machiavellic ruthlessness when it came to eliminating potential adversaries from the equation, he remained the 5th President of the People’s Republic of China until March of 2003 and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission for even longer than that, ultimately transferring his power to Hu Jintao (but more on Hu Jintao’s activity in another article).
His ideologic legacy is tricky to summarize because while there have been attempts through for example the “Three Represents” to include his theoretical ideas in the proverbial history books, they were… well, on the thin side and didn’t really end up having game-changing effects.
On the economic front, the growth rate during his rule has been impressive, yet some critics claim it was too impressive to be sustainable. To put it differently, Jiang Zemin was criticized by some for trying to obtain economic growth at all costs, leaving behind issues that were hard to tackle by later administrations: pollution problems, a growing gap between the rich and the poor (in a country ran by the Communist Party of China!), corruption giving birth to several groups of interest in key sectors of the Chinese economy and so on.
All in all, Jiang Zemin continued Deng Xiaoping’s “socialist market economy” approach and even formalized the term by including it in his speech at the 14th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, after Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 southern tour. As such, socialism with Chinese characteristics continued being the status quo in China and while Jian Zemin considered himself a figure as emblematic as Deng Xiaoping… historians tend to disagree.
Perhaps that would have been the case if he would have made the transfer of power to Hu Jintao more straightforward rather than hanging on to his military power and if he would have more successfully been able to tackle the growing imbalances in the Chinese economy which came as a result of the very high rates of GDP growth, which in some instances came at the expense of sustainability.
Still, perhaps as a testament of the modernization of China, Jian Zemin proved that it was possible to rule the country for an extended period of time without being a “larger than life” political character such as Mao or Deng but rather through a technocratic combination between pragmatism and the shrewdness it takes to make the political system of China work in your favor.