In Deng's Shadow: The Legacy of Jiang Zemin. (World in Review)

By Berenberg, Alex | Harvard International Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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In Deng's Shadow: The Legacy of Jiang Zemin. (World in Review)


Berenberg, Alex, Harvard International Review


In the wake of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and the resulting criticism from an appalled international community, a new leader emerged at the core of China's leadership. Jiang Zemin, Communist Party boss of Shanghai, clad in signature black, thick-rimmed glasses, was handpicked by Deng Xiaoping to be General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As Jiang prepares to relinquish the helm of the CCP in 2002 and the presidency in 2003, it is clear that he has been a caretaker ruler, not a reformer: Jiang's legacy has been limited to working within the framework of Deng Xiaoping's conservative political and liberal economic plan to restore some of China's luster on the international scene and to hasten economic development.

Although under Jiang's watch China moved beyond the bloody Tiananmen crackdown to success in its bids for the 2008 Olympics and World Trade Organization (WTO) accession, his attempts at crafting a personal legacy have been little more than offshoots of Deng-style reforms. The aftermath of Deng's death in 1997, well into Jiang's own term, saw little concrete change in policy or vision. Like Deng, Jiang has succeeded in quashing opposition to Party rule while advancing Chinese economic and international interests. His stance on Taiwan, a result of Deng's renewed reunification efforts in the 1980s, has managed to keep reunification on the agenda, but it has also undermined regional stability and China's relations with Japan and the United States. Jiang can claim partial credit for a stronger economy, continued Party control, and warmer foreign ties despite human-rights abuses and a stubborn Taiwan policy; yet, he is not a visionary. The success he has enjoyed in promoting Deng-inspired reforms suggests that Deng would not regret the choice he made in the dark days after Tiananmen.

The Party Man

Jiang Zemin's unexciting background made him well-suited to lead the Party through its rehabilitation from the confusion of Tiananmen. He neither struggled through the Long March, nor consolidated party views at Yan'an, nor fought for the "liberation" of his homeland. The future leader of the largest communist party in the world was born into an intellectual family in Yangzhou in 1926. He first came into contact with the CCP while attending Shanghai's Jiaotong University, where he supported student agitation for reform of the Nationalist government. Trained as an engineer, Jiang spent his early years in state-owned firms and demonstrated that he was just the type of member the CCP wanted: pragmatic, competent, hardworking, and bland. In the years following, he enjoyed a diverse career with appointments ranging from Minister of the Electronics Industry to Foreign Affairs Department Director of the No. 1 Ministry of Machine-Building Industry.

As mayor and then party chief of Shanghai, Jiang impressed the Beijing leadership, demonstrating patience in dealing with the student movements of 1986, and, with the help of his Premier Zhu Rongji, greatly increasing foreign investment by reducing regulation. Ultimately, he demonstrated to Deng and other top leaders that he could toe the party line of political conservatism while bringing economic growth and progress. Jiang's background as a successful and hard-working party bureaucrat foreshadowed the role he would play as China's leader, one of pushing China further down the path that Deng had cleared.

Economic Success

China's economic development can be likened to building a house: Mao ordered that its plans be burned to light the path of socialism; Deng rescued them from the fire and oversaw the construction; and Jiang moved into the nearly finished house and paid the utility bills. Many argue that Jiang's greatest legacy is continued economic reform and development. Indeed, there was fear after Tiananmen that economic liberalization was in danger. However, it was Deng who put China on the reform track and ensured that it continued on that track during the first crucial years, helping Jiang understand where to focus.

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