Jiang, China’s Face for the Old Men

<i> Edward A. Gargan, a former New York Times correspondent now writing a book about China, was in Beijing during the June upheaval</i>

China’s new Communist Party chief, Jiang Zemin, is, to read some U.S. press accounts: a man cosmopolitan in outlook, at ease with Western investors and their business practices--the leader to steady the ship of state, able to carry on policies of economic reform and reinstill confidence in a stable China. In the weeks that followed the blood bath in Beijing, this is a picture Americans may find reassuring. It is one, however, not shared by the people of China.

Two and a half years ago, when students in Shanghai marched through the streets carrying pictures of the Statue of Liberty and shouting slogans for democracy, Mayor Jiang Zemin reacted with fury. With his authority as mayor, as a senior member of the Communist Party, believing he could stifle the demands for freedom, he went to Jiaotong University to confront an auditorium packed with more than 3,000 students.

Jiang stood at the podium to demand that the students cancel their marches through the city. He rambled on, telling the students that China’s economic reforms were proceeding well, that Shanghai was beginning to prosper as a city. What the mayor would not address was the students’ insistence that the country move toward a more democratic political system. Slowly, then more rapidly, hisses and hoots swept the auditorium.

“Who dares to boo once more?” the enraged mayor shouted. There were more boos. “You won’t listen to me. How about you standing up and speaking instead.”


A student rose and pointedly asked why there was no freedom of press in China and why, since Jiang had not been elected by the people of Shanghai but appointed by Beijing, he thought he had any right to govern. The mayor was livid. He demanded to know the student’s name and department. It was the typical response of tyranny--refusal to be questioned, to be called to account. It was also the response of a man who had failed as mayor.

Even as the rest of China’s coast was experiencing dramatic economic growth, Shanghai’s economy was regressing, bogged down by an arthritic bureaucracy and political factionalism. Jiang failed so conspicuously that he was replaced last year.

At 62, Jiang is considered young for a Chinese leader. But he brings with youth no innovative ideas, no freshness to the chamber of octogenarian mandarins who control the central party apparatus.

When student protests began anew in Shanghai, Jiang, then the party secretary for the city, responded in the thuggish fashion for which he is known among Shanghai intellectuals. He pleased Deng Xiaoping and the party elders in Beijing by dismissing Qin Benli as editor of the World Economic Herald, a path-breaking journal that championed both economic and political reform. That Jiang had no formal legal authority to dismiss was, as is true of everything in China now, irrelevant.


Like Premier Li Peng, Jiang was trained as an engineer in the Soviet Union during the Stalin years, an experience that bred belief in both the absolute power of the party and the virtues of centralized planning. He benefitted, as did the premier, from nepotism. Li Peng was an adopted son of China’s first prime minster, Chou En-lai; Jiang is a son-in-law of Li Xiannian, China’s former president and a member of the emergent hard-line old guard. Like Li, Jiang did not suffer in the Cultural Revolution; instead, he advanced his career in the machine-building industry, demonstrating an ability to thrive in a climate of political hysteria and terror. When Deng and his colleagues wrested power from the party’s extreme left wing and the political winds shifted, Jiang deftly adapted to the mood of economic reform.

Jiang’s ascendence, intended to project an image of stability, demonstrates in fact the fragility of Chinese politics. He possesses no visible strengths of his own. He has no strong support within the provincial party apparatus or the army. He is detested by intellectuals and unknown by most of the rest of the country. He is, as one Chinese now in the United States put it, “just a facade for the old men.”

By anointing Jiang as party general secretary, Deng and the gerontocracy around him have admitted that China is incapable of establishing a coherent political order, a system where transition from one era of leadership to another is possible, where the institutions of administration and law function independent of personal whim. Indeed, it was not the party as an institution, nor the government itself, that bloodily repressed the spring democracy movement. It was a small coterie of elderly men--some holding no formal posts--that decided to send the army to Tian An Men Square.

Deng, at the head of this clique, bluntly acknowledged that neither the Communist Party nor the government wielded any real authority, that only these old men exercised power in China. “We still have a large group of veterans who have experienced many storms and have a thorough understanding of things,” Deng told a gathering of military commanders on June 9. “They were on the side of taking resolute action to counter the turmoil. Although some comrades may not understand this now, they will understand eventually.” These old men, Deng, Yang Shangkun, Li Xiannian, Chen Yun, Peng Zhen, Bo Yibo, Wang Zhen--all over 80--run China, not Party Chief Jiang, not Premier Li.

Jiang and Li, the men who are to be the face of China, have proclaimed the country stable, the situation returning to normal. Foreign businessmen are urged to return and resume operations, continue negotiations on new projects, provide new loans, to--in the words of Zheng Tuobin, minister in charge of foreign trade--"show their commitment to China.” To the Chinese people as well, the leadership is putting on a show of normalcy. National television shows scenes of what purports to be larger harvests of wheat, increased steel production, a greater abundance of goods in shops. Normalcy also means new arrests, more raids on campuses, executions, a reinvigorated system of informing--on neighbors, colleagues and even relatives.

There are, among the targets of this propaganda, only two real audiences: the vast rural population that knows little or nothing of the democracy movement in the cities and the foreign business community. Already, foreign factory managers, bankers, lawyers are dribbling back to China. At Beijing’s airport one overhears expressions of confidence from the returning executives, that the crisis is over. “Business,” they say, “is business.”

But the real crisis is yet to come--the crisis of transition to a new generation of Communist Party leaders. Many Chinese who think about their country and its future expect this process to be tumultuous. They point to the succession struggle following the death of Mao Tse-tung, a swift military coup accompanied by arrests and wide-scale purges within the party. They point to Deng’s inability to arrange for his own succession, how his dissatisfaction with the policies and inclinations of his designated successors led him to repeated reassertions of his own informal but paramount authority.

As bloody as the suppression of the spring democracy movement was, many Chinese intellectuals believe the worst is yet to come. One of them told me in late June, “These old men will die and when they die the knives will come out.” The tragedy is not for the Communist Party, it is for the people of China.