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Pondering Jiang's career
The Providence Journal (Rhode Island)

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on September 26th, 2004

LOUVAIN, Belgium - Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, whom I, among other students of China, had predicted would fight to retain his political role, has now, evidently, gone quietly, by resigning his powerful position as chairman of the party military commission.

Perhaps he will retire to his new house, in Shanghai, maybe to nurse an illness (prostate cancer is rumored), certainly to enjoy his family, and conceivably to continue trying to advance the careers of his protégés -- despite his retirement, something not unknown in Chinese political history.

I saw Jiang in person only once, when he spoke at Harvard in 1997. Memorial Hall was ringed with shouting protesters and with supporters, nervous lest their president somehow slip up. Jiang took note of the protesters: "I hear outside a loud sound, like insects" he observbed (I quote from memory) in an apparent attempt at humor. "So I suppose I have no choice but to speak louder myself." But he did have a choice. He could, like a real politician, have gone out to chat with the crowd.

As I look back, this incident sums up Jiang for me, even as it underlines the challenge that now faces his successor. Jiang was unwilling to talk to his own people, but his successors must.

Jiang craved foreign attention: Preparing for his arrival in Washington, his advance party had nothing to say about issues for discussion but was entirely concerned with such topics as the width of the red carpet in front of his aircraft on arrival. More than any previous Chinese communist leader, Jiang substituted legitimation by foreigners, welcoming him as "China's leader," for legitimation by his own people.

Yet having been installed entirely irregularly by an ad-hoc committee of elders in 1989, Jiang stayed in power for 15 years. How?

As one Chinese informant put it to me: "He let everybody do whatever they wanted." And Jiang was liberal about lending the savings of the Chinese people -- accumulating enormous, probably irrecoverable, debts -- in order to keep state enterprise alive.

As for contributions to China's future, Jiang prided himself on his Theory of the Three Represents, which, summed up, changes the definition of the communists from a revolutionary to a ruling party that somehow, in a way reminiscent of Mussolini's corporatism, brings all that is best in China into a single, permanent structure of rule.

In foreign policy, I think, Jiang dreamed of being the "unification chancellor." He appears to have been the leader who steered China away from Deng Xiaoping's policy of not threatening Taiwan with military deployments. Jiang said that "without the threat of force, peaceful reunification cannot be achieved," and he gave the green light to an arms buildup that he thought would intimidate Washington into pushing Taiwan in his direction. He also presided over the "patriotic education program," as an antidote to 1989's bloody crackdown on the protesters at Tiananmen Square. This program has increased Chinese anti-foreign feeling.

What are Jiang's successors to do? To the extent that one can judge such things in a controlled society, his successors are better liked than he was, and are the vessels of powerful hopes among the people for political reform. But the tactics of endless prevarication, which Jiang practiced, will no longer work. The former president created an immense wave of unresolved issues, ranging from rural poverty to peace in Asia: Do President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao have the real power to tackle these? My sense is that they do not.

To change, China needs a vital political life, with free speech and press, and real politicians, who can bring crowds to their feet, silence hecklers, work the press, and win elections -- and with them the indispensable democratic mandate to act for the country, rather than simply to protect their own bureaucratically determined positions.

Still, one must wish the new leaders and their country nothing but the best, while hoping that they will see that only by leaving the cocoon of the party to listen to the Chinese people, and by tackling the problems that Jiang avoided, will they have a chance at success and winning the positive judgment of history.

Arthur Waldron, an occasional contributor, is a historian and Lauder Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania; this semester he is a visiting professor of history at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, in Louvain (Leuven), Belgium. He is also vice president of the new International Assessment and Strategy Center, in Washington.

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