Former President Jiang Zemin passed away on November 30, at the age of 96.
Jiang was by all accounts a remarkable figure.
Born and raised in a revolutionary family, adopted by an uncle who died fighting the Japanese, Jiang read engineering in Nanjing prior to cutting his teeth as a junior engineer in Moscow in the 1950s. Returning to Shanghai in the early 1960s and moving to Wuhan in the mid-1960s, he climbed the ranks of the machine works departments – as a technocrat and engineer first and foremost, only to find himself thrusted into fronting international exchanges and visitations with foreign investors and counterparts in other nations. Jiang was made a member of the Central Committee in 1982, promoted to Mayor of Shanghai in 1985, and further promoted to Party Secretary of Shanghai in 1987. Selected as a compromise between rival factions in the aftermath of the events of the late 1980s, Jiang was appointed General Secretary in 1989.
Jiang differed clearly from both of his predecessors. Where Mao had instigated, led, advanced mass movements through an ideologically zealous and near-Messiah-esque personality cult, Jiang opted for a personal charisma fundamentally rooted in a distinctive blend of apparent affability, intentional self-effacement, incisive humour, and trenchant resolve – deploying these demeanours in accordance with the particular needs given rise to by the circumstances. Whilst Deng had been known for his nimble, no-nonsense pragmatism and long-enduring commitment to salvaging China's economy from the brink of cataclysm, Jiang rode off the substantial legacy left to him by his predecessor – and was tasked with managing the Chinese train as it charged full-speed-ahead.
The engineer-turned-statesman witnessed China's acceding to the WTO, the financialisation and top-down centralisation (qua regulation and introduction of bureaucratic structures) of China's economy, and the introduction of technologically oriented reforms designed to improve the country's innovation and ability to compete on the global stage. He handled China's relations with key partners, such as America and the post-USSR Russia, with broad aplomb and tactfulness, opting for de-escalation as opposed to confrontation over flashpoints and trigger events such as the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, and the Hainan Island incident in 2001. A polyglot, he opted to speak (fluently) the languages of many of his host nations as he paid them visits – emphasising, almost always, that there existed more common ground between China and them, as opposed to inalienable differences.
The leadership transition from Jiang to Hu is oft cited by political scientists as a paradigmatic example of the peaceful, norm-based succession process playing out in post-1949 China. Despite his long-enduring legacy and influences after his official retirement, it was indeed the case that Jiang – at least ex officio – opted to relinquish control over all formal posts two years into his retirement from General Secretary (he stepped down at the Fourth Plenum of the 16th Central Committee in 2004). An orderly and well-maintained transfer of power has come to define the successes of the China story in the late 20th century – as the regime cultivated greater resilience and stability in face of political undercurrents and adversities.
China became an economic powerhouse for a number of reasons – no less the Chinese people, and Deng's resolve to embrace opening-up across a large plethora of dimensions. Yet it was Jiang who oversaw the coming-to-fruition of China's economic modernisation, as well as the reunification of Hong Kong and Macau with their motherland. Now, of course, Jiang's rule was not without its critics, too. Some would fault his handling of particular political episodes and transitions. Others would posit that his liberalisation efforts had given rise to unbridled inequalities and downstream instability in the country.
Yet the extent to which such malaise should be attributed to the man himself – as opposed to the times in which he found himself – must be carefully reflected upon; those who jump too easily to hurling criticisms at the man, may find themselves fundamentally ensnared by double standards or ahistorical anachronisms, paired with the undue benefit of hindsight, in their historical judgments. There is no saint in history, but Jiang certainly did his country – and the world – much good. Critique and criticise all we want, but we must also do so in cognizance of the answers to the question: what would have been the likely counterfactual?
There's a classic Chinese epithet that speaks of the "rolling tides racing towards the East" (大江東去, dajiang dongqu). The passing of Jiang indeed marks the end of an era. To paraphrase Fitzgerald, "so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
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