When Jiang Zemin was mayor of Shanghai, he was popularly nicknamed “flowerpot” because of his tireless capacity to pose decoratively at ceremonial ribbon cuttings and grand openings.
Even today, Jiang’s corny, glad-handing style is more evocative of a big-city mayor than the leader of the world’s most populous nation and an emerging economic power. His baggy, double-breasted suits and slicked-back black hair speak more of Tammany Hall than Great Hall of the People.
But in terms of formal rank and position, the affable Jiang, 70, a man fond of entertaining American visitors by singing movie tunes or reciting passages from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, is the indisputable heir to “paramount leader” Deng Xiaoping, who died Wednesday in Beijing.
Jiang’s main claim to power--other than Deng’s lukewarm endorsement of him as being the “core” of the third generation of Communist leadership--is that he holds all three top positions in the party, state and military.
As president, he is China’s head of state. As general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, he holds the highest party post. As chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, Jiang is commander in chief of the country’s armed forces.
But Jiang lacks the direct military command experience that was a crucial part of Deng’s power base. To survive, Jiang must also escape the “curse of Hua Guofeng.” Hapless Hua was Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s handpicked successor. But he lasted only a little more than two years in power before being unceremoniously ousted in 1979 by Deng.
In general, China is not kind to designated successors.
Referring to the Hua precedent, Deng told an Italian journalist in 1980: “For a leader to pick his own successor is a feudal practice. It is an illustration of the imperfections in our institutions.”
Still, when Deng “retired” in 1989 from all his official posts, he named the then-obscure Jiang as his successor.
When he was first thrust onto center stage in 1989, few gave the former Shanghai mayor much chance to survive as China’s new leader once Deng left the scene.
Despite his failing health, Deng survived seven years after giving Jiang the nod. And Jiang used this time to build support in the political establishment, including the all-important military.
As a result, many observers now give him a better than even chance to maintain his position at the head of China’s leadership. “I think Jiang has consolidated his position in recent years,” commented a Western diplomat in Beijing.
But political succession in China is a tricky business, fraught with hidden dangers, and Jiang faces several challenges leading up to the important 15th Communist Party Congress in October. For one thing, he must carefully manage the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule July 1.
An engineer-factory manager for 25 years before serving as Shanghai mayor and party chief, Jiang was relatively unknown in 1989 when Deng plucked him from the crowd of potential political heirs. Until then, he was known mainly as an obsequious host for senior party officials visiting Shanghai. One story recounts how he showed up at a visiting leader’s hotel room door in the middle of the night to personally deliver a birthday cake.
But what apparently caught the eye of Deng and other senior leaders was Jiang’s tough stand during the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Shanghai. In a rare decisive act, Jiang shut the offices of the World Economic Herald, a pro-democracy Shanghai newspaper, in spring 1989. That move sent a chilling signal to pro-democracy forces that anti-establishment acts would not be tolerated in China’s leading industrial city. And while Shanghai avoided bloodshed, in Beijing, army troops were called out and killed hundreds of demonstrators in a June 3-4 military action to clear Tiananmen Square.
Only one month later, Jiang surprised nearly everyone when he was named general secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee, replacing popular, reform-minded Zhao Ziyang.
In November of that year he was offered the important position of chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Since his sudden elevation, Jiang has spent seven years preparing for his destiny as China’s ruler.
He courted the military by increasing budgets and promoting generals, including raising 19 officers to the army’s highest rank of full general in 1994. In his most successful move, Jiang managed in 1995 to appoint his close political ally, Defense Minister Chi Haotian, to the important post of vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. In 1996, Chi rotated several key regional military commanders.
Jiang also won support in the military when, after an initial hesitation, he ordered military exercises and missile firings off the coast of Taiwan last spring to try to intimidate voters in Taiwan’s first-ever presidential elections.
“He will never have the cachet of a combat commander made good,” a Western diplomat said of Jiang. “But at least there is nobody out there in the military spearheading opposition against him.”
Meanwhile, on the civilian front, Jiang sought public recognition and approval by appearing almost every night in newscasts. To ensure that he gets top billing in the broadcasts seen by as many as 400 million Chinese, Jiang appointed his own man, Gong Xinhan, a former propaganda official in Shanghai, to a senior position in the propaganda department.
In one three-month period monitored by researchers in The Times’ Beijing Bureau, Jiang had more appearances (67) and more air time (163 minutes) than any other top leader. The next closest was National People’s Congress Chairman Qiao Shi (50 appearances; 122 minutes). Fittingly, Qiao, a former intelligence chief, is considered Jiang’s main challenger in the quest to succeed Deng.
In recent years, Jiang added to his political base by stocking top positions in the party and government with cronies, many from Shanghai. His penchant for appointing Shanghai friends to top posts has caused resentment, particularly in Beijing, where it is said that Jiang has installed a “Shanghai gang” at the center of power.
Recently, he used the cover of an anti-corruption campaign to weed out powerful enemies. One of his most outspoken opponents, Beijing party chief Chen Xitong, was forced to resign in April 1995.
Last year, Jiang launched a national “spiritual civilization” campaign aimed at instilling civic virtues in the Chinese masses.
Despite his impressive titles and years of careful preparation, it is by no means certain that Jiang will emerge on top in the long succession struggle that is expected to follow Deng’s death.
“With Deng’s death,” said Geremie Barme, an Australian and a China expert, “the political ring of confidence that so protected Jiang Zemin has been torn asunder and he must now face an uncertain political future and political ills by himself.”
Titles mean relatively little in the Chinese power equation. Although officially retired in 1989, Deng continued to rule China as the country’s “paramount leader” until his death. For most of that time, his only position was honorary chairman of the China Bridge Assn.
As recent history also shows, it has never been good to be designated as successor to a Chinese leader: Three of Mao’s choices flamed out. So did the two Deng picks who preceded Jiang.
It says something about Jiang’s tenuous grip on power that not even the people here in his hometown have much confidence that he will last very long at China’s helm.
“Yangzhou is no different than anywhere else in China,” said one resident, a former military officer. “Most people have doubts that Jiang will be able to stay in power now that Deng is no longer there to protect him.”
Jiang was born and raised in this pretty, prosperous Jiangsu province river town, famed as a resting spot for emperors of the Qing Dynasty, China’s last, traveling south to Hangzhou on the Grand Canal.
Jiang attended an American missionary school here where he learned smatterings of English and even memorized parts of the Gettysburg Address, among other democratic texts.
In interviews, Jiang has often boasted of his knowledge and understanding of American institutions. “My understanding of the U.S.,” he said in one interview, “is better than many Americans’ understanding of China.”
Jiang’s childhood home--a large, traditional courtyard residence where he lived with the family of his stepfather-uncle--still stands in relatively good repair.
According to his nephew, Tai Zhan, 34, one of a handful of relatives still living in Yangzhou, several families now share space where Jiang’s clan once dwelt. But not a sign, plaque or historical marker identifies the courtyard residence as the former home of China’s most powerful leader. When visitors ask neighbors to point out Jiang’s house, they are usually greeted with a blank stare or sent off with complicated misdirections to another side of this 2,300-year-old city.
“President Jiang is a modest man who does not wish to draw attention to himself,” explained Ding Zhanghua, a Yangzhou tourism official. “Our city does not wish to give the impression that it is taking special advantage of his position. Things are different from the time of Chairman Mao, when there was a lot of propaganda to develop a cult of personality.”
In his seeming modesty, Jiang may be hoping to avoid mistakes and the fate of China’s greatest failure in the complicated succession business--Hua, whom Mao anointed his successor with the famous words: “With you in charge, I rest at ease.”
Hua alienated powerful people with self-promoting publicity stunts aimed at affirming his right as political heir. For example, he posed with victims of the disastrous 1976 Tangshan earthquake. It is his gold-plated calligraphy that adorns Mao’s tomb in the center of Tiananmen Square.
But Hua, who took power after Mao’s death in September 1976, lost the power struggle to Deng in a little more than two years. Significantly, by cashing in on his broad support in the military, Deng managed a palace coup, though he then held only the relatively minor official position of deputy premier.
Jiang’s official biography says he joined the Communist student movement in 1943 at age 17.
He joined the Communist Party in 1946 when he was studying electrical engineering at Shanghai’s Jiaotong University, from which he graduated in 1947. Although he lacks the battle experience that has marked many in China’s leadership, his stepfather was a martyred victim of the war against the Japanese, giving young Jiang a revolutionary lineage.
After graduation, Jiang married Wang Yeping, a distant relative from Yangzhou. Wang surfaced in public at Jiang’s side after 1993, when the Chinese president began making overseas trips as head of state. Beijing Youth News lists her as a graduate of Shanghai’s Foreign Languages Institute. They have two sons, one of whom, Jiang Mianheng, studied engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
For most of the 25 years after graduation from Jiaotong University, Jiang held management posts in factories, including an early stint at the Shanghai soap factory from 1949 to 1952. When relations with the Soviet Union were at their height, he traveled as a trainee to Moscow’s Stalin Automobile Plant from 1955 to 1956.
He emerged unscathed from the 10-year Cultural Revolution that ended in 1976.
It was during the Cultural Revolution that Jiang showed some political courage that ultimately launched him into the upper tier of Chinese leadership.
His boss at the First Ministry of Machine Building in Beijing, fellow Jiaotong alumnus Wang Daohan, was sent to the country for hard labor. At some risk to himself, Jiang agreed to take his friend’s daughter into his own home. Wang was later rehabilitated and became mayor of Shanghai. When he left office in 1985, Jiang was named to replace him.
As mayor and party secretary of Shanghai between 1985 and 1989, Jiang’s style of city hall boosterism reached full flower.
On a Shanghai promotional tour of the United States, he showed up for a dinner in Honolulu wearing a Hawaiian shirt.
His musical penchant surfaced as recently as November 1993, after his first meeting with President Clinton in Seattle.
In a buoyant mood on his return jet flight, Jiang led official passengers in a squeaky, off-key rendition of the Chinese Muslim folk song “The Rose Flower.” The next day, that performance was broadcast on the national evening news--to mixed reviews.
Whether Jiang can keep singing his tune as China’s top leader is another matter.
The way he sees himself, he has the weight to survive.
“I always talk about China as a very big mass,” Jiang said in a 1990 interview. “Myself, I am also a very big mass, at 95 kilograms [209 pounds]. It is difficult for you to push away such a big mass. You might sometimes have to retreat or even fall down yourself as a result.”
Tempest, The Times’ Beijing Bureau chief, was recently on assignment in Yangzhou.
China After Deng
THE NEXT DENG: China’s leaders present a united front after Deng Xiaoping’s death. But the official eulogy, expected as early as today, may indicate a power struggle will follow. A16
THE NEW PROSPERITY: Deng’s legacy in one village: a higher standard of living. A17
TAIWAN’S INSECURITY: Many on island fear a post-Deng clash with Beijing. A17