During a wave of Chinese student demonstrations at the end of 1986, Jiang Zemin, then the mayor of Shanghai, noticed wallposters at one of the city's leading universities quoting the Gettysburg Address: "All men are created equal."
The proud mayor immediately launched his own propaganda counteroffensive. As Jiang later boasted in an interview with this reporter and several other Western correspondents, he stood up before thousands of students at the school, Jiaotong University, and recited the entire Gettysburg Address to them--in English. And then he told the students they didn't understand it.
"You only know Lincoln's speech in words," he told the students. "You don't know the historical context of the speech." He proceeded to give the students a lecture whose message was that Chinese society is vastly different from that of the United States. Lincoln's address referred to American slavery, he explained, while China's Communist revolution was aimed at overcoming the exploitation of man by man.
That story illustrates the character of the man who was appointed Saturday to be the new general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.
On the one hand, Jiang is well educated, a linguist, quite familiar with the world outside China. He is likely to try to continue China's policy of opening to the outside world and seeking to attract foreign trade and investment.
On the other hand, he is a firm believer in upholding traditional Marxist-Leninist ideology. Over the past three years, Jiang has repeatedly made clear his firm opposition to the demands for Western-style democracy and freedom of the press that have been pressed by Chinese students and intellectuals.
"These students need re-education," Jiang said in the interview. "We have underestimated the influence of bourgeois liberalization (a Chinese phrase meaning Western influence) upon them."
In Jiang's attitude toward the current generation of Chinese students, there was a strong undertone of generational resentment. He acted much like then-Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, who, during the Vietnam anti-war protests of the late 1960s, once snarled at a group of student demonstrators, "When I was a student at Berkeley, we were much tougher than you are."
Jiang recalled that he himself had graduated from Jiaotong University, the same Shanghai school where he had observed wallposters of the Gettysburg Address. "Their (living) conditions there now are much better than ours were," he said. " . . . These students, they lack the deep, real knowledge of Chinese history and the Chinese revolution."
There is considerable irony in Jiang's appointment Saturday. For, as he recalled in that interview two years ago, his rise to become mayor of Shanghai--the job that launched his career in top-level Chinese politics--was helped by, among others, Zhao Ziyang, the man he is now replacing as party chief.
In late 1984, Jiang was working in Beijing as China's minister of the electronics industry when Zhao, then China's premier, made an inspection tour of Shanghai. Zhao brought Jiang with him.
The issues at that time were strictly economic ones--then, there were no student demonstrations in the city. Shanghai's economy was a mess, and its industry was decaying and unproductive.
Jiang was a logical companion for Zhao. He was the head of one of China's most important industrial ministries. Moreover, as he later told reporters, Jiang's wife was from Shanghai. Jiang himself had gone to school and university there and had worked there on two previous occasions.
Mayor of Shanghai
The following year, in 1985, with Zhao's backing, Jiang was appointed Shanghai mayor. It is one of the hardest and most important jobs in Chinese politics, and Jiang admitted he had mixed feelings about taking the position.
"To be a mayor is more difficult than being a minister. When I was working as a minister in Beijing, I didn't have to worry about the weather and the food supply. That was (the mayor of Beijing's) problem," he said. " . . . As mayor, you have to handle everything--food, housing, toilets, everything. For example, the Shanghainese are very demanding about getting fresh vegetables."
He sprinkles his conversation with Chinese folk wisdom. When Jiang wanted to demonstrate his determined optimism about the future of Shanghai, he quipped: "There's an old saying, 'When Lao (Old Man) Wang sells his melons, he always says they are sweet. He never says they are bitter.' "
In personal style, Jiang is jocular and informal. In the interview, he wore a Western shirt and tie--but coupled that with a zippered sweat-suit jacket instead of a sports jacket.
Like Premier Li Peng, the 62-year-old Jiang has a chubby face and a paunchy midriff--a reminder that, unlike the older generation who made the Long March, China's current crop of leaders now get plenty of food and not much exercise.
Bound by Tradition
Despite his knowledge of English, Jiang conducted that March, 1987, interview in Chinese, speaking to reporters through a translator. That is the traditional format for interviews with foreign correspondents in China, and Jiang did not appear to be the sort of person anxious to break with tradition.
He seemed eager to reassure foreigners that, despite the ouster of then-Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang two months earlier and the party's ideological campaign against "bourgeois liberalization," China in general and Shanghai in particular remained open to foreign investment.
In fact, Jiang suggested to reporters, the entire crackdown on student demonstrations at the beginning of 1987 was aimed at protecting China's policy of opening to the outside world.
"If the masses are striking on the street, how can we attract the foreign investors to . . . Shanghai?" he asked.
During the demonstrations in Shanghai in December, 1986, tens of thousands of students jammed Shanghai's streets. At one point, students at Jiaotong University had a tense, edgy confrontation with Jiang, their mayor.
"The students told me they have the right to demonstrate," Jiang later told reporters. "I said, 'You have the right to demonstrate. The (Chinese) constitution says it. But I personally don't agree that you should. There are 12 million people in Shanghai, and you can't guarantee there won't be people (in the demonstrations) who will commit crimes.' "
Furthermore, Jiang told the students, "Shanghai is the old nest of the Gang of Four (the ultra-radicals who led the Cultural Revolution.) Those people would take advantage of these student demonstrations."
At the time, Jiang was full of praise for Zhao Ziyang, then China's premier. Zhao had just become the acting Communist Party secretary, the heir-apparent to China's top leader, Deng Xiaoping.
Zhao had taken over as party leader from Hu Yaobang, who had lost his job in part because of those huge student demonstrations in Shanghai.
"Our premier is a great premier," Jiang Zemin said at the time. "Why, his remarks about combatting the influence of bourgeois liberalization in China are just marvelous."
Now, it will be up to Jiang, a true believer, to see if he can combat Western influence in China, after the failure and ouster of his two predecessors.