For history, Jiang Zemin will certainly be remembered as a turning point in communist China.
Coming from a simple family background in Jiangsu Province, on the country’s east coast, he had no revolutionary pedigree. Trained as an electrical engineer, he ascended to the Central Committee in 1982, inaugurating with Li Peng (who would become premier) and Hu Qili (who would reach the Politburo Standing Committee) the era of technocrats: communists with no historical affiliation to the party who grew up thanks to the combination of professional experience and solid educational background.
Chosen mayor of Shanghai in 1985, he was ineffective in the position. In his favour, however, he had unrestricted loyalty to Deng Xiaoping —then de facto leader of the regime. Two years later, political alliances would earn him a promotion to general secretary of the Communist Party in the city, with a post on the Politburo.
The rise to the heart of the country’s political power would then take place by a combination of factors.
After the Tiananmen Square massacre and the purge of then-Secretary-General Zhao Ziyang — considered sympathetic to students calling for democracy — Deng found himself besieged by conservative factions left over from the Cultural Revolution and eager to use the tragedy in Beijing as an excuse. to restore “communist purity”.
Jiang then got promoted for being weak. Not aligned with traditional wards, but loyal to the reforms, he was seen as someone easy to control. Closely supervised by Deng himself and by founding cadres of the legend such as Chen Yu, Wang Zhen and Yang Shangkun, he would only consolidate power as these names died or withdrew from politics.
“It took Jiang out of the shadows for him to be able to promote many of his allies in the Politburo and the Armed Forces,” says Victor Shih, a researcher of the Chinese political elite and professor at the University of California, San Diego. “Even so, he was never able to completely dominate the party and had to share power, institutionalizing the so-called collective leadership that prevailed until this year.”
The reference is to the promotion of officials loyal to Xi Jinping to the Politburo Standing Committee at the last Party Congress in October.
In the economic area, Jiang was notable for paving the way for China to join the World Trade Organization in 2001, a fundamental step towards consolidating the country as a global export power.
To achieve this feat, he used his charisma to overcome the distrust of the world after the 1989 massacre. Interested in American and European history, he spoke Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Russian, German, Romanian and English. On a visit to Chile, he gave a 40-minute speech entirely in Spanish.
He prided himself on his ability to communicate in multiple languages and gained notoriety in the West after an interview given to legendary American journalist Mike Wallace, in which he switched between Mandarin and English to discuss thorny issues such as freedom of the press, persecution of activists and authoritarianism.
Economic liberalization did not come without consequences. During the years he remained in power, cases of corruption increased — including scandals with his own children, Jiang Mianheng, considered the telecommunications czar in China, who rose in his career through shady methods, and the youngest Jiang Miankang, who acted as a lobbyist for Siemens on the Shanghai metro expansion in an overpriced contract.
Shih believes that corruption was a direct consequence of the expansion of the private market in a country controlled by state officials for decades. “At the same time, he led a campaign to purge corrupt military personnel, which was very risky, especially after Deng’s death in 1997, as he did so without a strong figure behind him.”
Successive scandals, however, would become frequent and branch out throughout the successor’s term, Hu Jintao. The transfer of power was peaceful, but it opened up space for hardline anti-corruption officials like Xi Jinping himself.
“Xi, to a large extent, reversed much of Jiang’s legacy. Even so, the former leader will be known as a legitimate representative of a new generation in the Communist Party. of engagement with the rest of the world, which resonates even today and will always be a reference for Chinese diplomacy and leadership”, says Shih.
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