Obituary

Jiang Zemin Helped China Become a Global Powerhouse

With a steady hand—and some willingness to face criticism—he ushered China into the world economy.

Jiang Zemin stands in the Rose Garden of the White House.
Jiang Zemin stands in the Rose Garden of the White House.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin visits the White House in Washington on Oct. 29, 1997. Diana Walker/Getty Images
By , the Ho Miu Lam chair in China and Pacific relations and an associate professor at the University of California San Diego’s School of Global Policy & Strategy.

When Chinese recall Jiang Zemin, who stepped down as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2002, they sometimes laugh about a well-known episode in 2000 when he berated a Hong Kong reporter for being “too simple, sometimes naive.” Jiang’s outsized response to an innocuous question about the next leader of Hong Kong spurred bemused murmurs and plenty of sarcasm. It epitomized a patronizing and bullying style of leadership stemming from the deep conviction of Jiang and other leaders that they knew best.

In truth, Jiang, who, according to official media, died on Nov. 30 in Shanghai at the age of 96, oversaw two crucial transitions that shaped and largely improved the lives of the people of China. First, he peacefully guided his country out of the shadow of China’s founding revolutionaries, who had spent decades purging one another and at times caused great pain and sorrow for everyone else. Second, although hesitant at first, Jiang came to embrace the market economy. As China struggles under the pressures of its zero-COVID policy, and after nationwide protests swept the country last weekend, Jiang’s rule now seems to many like a period of relative hope.

More so than any Chinese leader before him—even his immediate predecessor, Deng Xiaoping—Jiang integrated China into the global economy, first by welcoming foreign direct investment and ultimately by shepherding China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Together, these moves put China on track to become a global economic powerhouse.

Jiang Zemin stands in the Rose Garden of the White House.
Jiang Zemin stands in the Rose Garden of the White House.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin visits the White House in Washington on Oct. 29, 1997. Diana Walker/Getty Images

When Chinese recall Jiang Zemin, who stepped down as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2002, they sometimes laugh about a well-known episode in 2000 when he berated a Hong Kong reporter for being “too simple, sometimes naive.” Jiang’s outsized response to an innocuous question about the next leader of Hong Kong spurred bemused murmurs and plenty of sarcasm. It epitomized a patronizing and bullying style of leadership stemming from the deep conviction of Jiang and other leaders that they knew best.

In truth, Jiang, who, according to official media, died on Nov. 30 in Shanghai at the age of 96, oversaw two crucial transitions that shaped and largely improved the lives of the people of China. First, he peacefully guided his country out of the shadow of China’s founding revolutionaries, who had spent decades purging one another and at times caused great pain and sorrow for everyone else. Second, although hesitant at first, Jiang came to embrace the market economy. As China struggles under the pressures of its zero-COVID policy, and after nationwide protests swept the country last weekend, Jiang’s rule now seems to many like a period of relative hope.

More so than any Chinese leader before him—even his immediate predecessor, Deng Xiaoping—Jiang integrated China into the global economy, first by welcoming foreign direct investment and ultimately by shepherding China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Together, these moves put China on track to become a global economic powerhouse.

There was little in Jiang’s early background, however, to suggest this was the dynamic role he would play.


Xi Jinping and Jiang Zemin
Xi Jinping and Jiang Zemin

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) talks with Jiang during the closing of the 19th Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 24, 2017. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Jiang grew up in the eastern city of Yangzhou in China’s Jiangsu province, which was then a society in transition between traditional agrarianism and a modern industrialized economy—and also a place in a constant state of political turmoil. As a child in Yangzhou, Jiang benefited from his grandfather’s status and wealth as a renowned practitioner of Chinese medicine. His father was a trained engineer working in a Western-style corporation, which also afforded relative comfort to the family.

Yet it was Jiang’s uncle, Jiang Shangqing, who may have had the greatest influence. As a young child, Jiang witnessed the ups and downs of his uncle’s revolutionary career as a Communist leader struggling against the Japanese, the Kuomintang (KMT) government, and local warlords. Before Jiang turned 9 years old, and before Japan’s invasion of central China, local KMT authorities had jailed Jiang Shangqing twice for spreading Communist propaganda in the schools where he had taught.

In the late 1930s, after Japanese forces had conquered the major cities of eastern China, Communist guerrilla forces carried out a complex struggle against Japanese occupiers in the provinces of Anhui, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang, at times in collaboration and at times at odds with remnant KMT forces and the always present landlord militias. The local commander of the Communist New Fourth Army, Zhang Jingfu, appointed Jiang Shangqing to the important position of vice commander of Communist forces in northern Anhui province. Within a few months, however, local landlords, who bore a private grudge against Jiang Shangqing, conspired to murder him. Although the circumstances of his death in 1939 remain murky, Jiang Shangqing received the posthumous honor of being named a “revolutionary martyr,” an official CCP label that bestowed formal and informal benefits to close relatives of the deceased. In Jiang Shangqing’s case, his nephew and posthumously adopted son, Jiang Zemin, became the biggest beneficiary of his martyr status.

Although young Jiang must have been regaled with stories of his uncle’s exploits, he also learned at a young age that the revolution was “not a dinner party,” as Mao Zedong put it. Jiang largely stayed away from politics through high school and the first half of college. Finally, as the civil war heated up between the KMT and Mao’s CCP in the mid-1940s, Jiang secretly joined the Communists.

With the CCP’s eventual victory in 1949, Jiang and his generation of Communist intellectuals were in a good position to flourish. Illiterate peasant soldiers formed the backbone of the CCP’s large army—soldiers who were ill-equipped to staff the complex central and local bureaucracies vacated by departing KMT officials. The CCP compounded its governing challenges when it nationalized thousands of industrial firms soon after 1949.

To fill a desperate shortage of talent, the CCP immediately thrust college and even high school graduates who had joined the party prior to 1949 into positions of authority. Jiang, who had graduated from the renowned Jiaotong University with an engineering degree, became chief engineer at a Shanghai popsicle factory where he had worked prior to 1949.

Jiang’s ties to his martyred uncle gave his career a further boost. Wang Daohan, one of his uncle’s comrades in the New Fourth Army, was put in charge of all industrial firms in eastern China. He made Jiang, then only in his mid-20s, CEO of the popsicle factory. This promotion tied Jiang’s fortune with that of Wang and the New Fourth Army faction for the rest of his career.

In 1952, Wang was appointed vice minister of the sprawling First Ministry of Machinery, which oversaw all civilian production of engines and telecommunication equipment in China. Jiang joined him and was soon dispatched to Moscow for training in car manufacturing. On his return to China, Jiang was appointed to a senior position in First Automobile Works, a Soviet-aided industrial project managed by the ministry in Changchun in frosty northeastern China. Working in senior positions at First Automobile Works throughout the next decade, Jiang became familiar with other leaders of the First Ministry of Machinery, including Zhou Jiannan, who would later become a major supporter of Jiang, and whose son, Zhou Xiaochuan, would become governor of the People’s Bank of China.


Jiang Zemin
Jiang Zemin

Jiang, then-mayor of Shanghai, is pictured in October 1985. C.K. Lau/South China Morning Post/Getty Images

When Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966 to weed out “impure” elements in Chinese government and society, Jiang’s promising career appeared doomed. Mao purged the vast majority of senior Communist officials and hollowed out most ministries, including the First Ministry of Machinery. While some young cadres in Jiang’s and other ministries formed into Red Guards to “struggle” against their superiors, Jiang did not. Instead, he suffered the indignities of Red Guard criticism and spent four hard years in a “May 7 cadre school,” the party’s euphemistic name for a labor camp.

Jiang’s steadfast willingness to suffer along with senior veterans of the revolution would eventually fortify his reputation as a reliable younger comrade. At the end of the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, the New Fourth Army faction joined Deng’s emerging coalition to take power and govern China.

Wang, as a senior member of the New Fourth Army faction, was given a series of important State Council positions and then appointed mayor of Shanghai. At every step, Wang made sure that his key protégé, Jiang, was promoted along with him. Zhang, Jiang Shangqing’s former commander in the New Fourth Army, meanwhile became the director of the second-most powerful economic agency in China, the State Economic Commission.

When Wang was put in charge of a new agency overseeing foreign trade and foreign direct investment, Jiang also became a senior official in that agency. This experience led him to become one of the few foreign trade specialists in the regime. In 1985, when Wang retired as Shanghai mayor, he forcefully lobbied central leaders to make Jiang his replacement, a request that was granted.

For Jiang, this was an important milestone: The Shanghai mayoral post was only one step removed from the Shanghai party secretary position, and a party secretary position in Shanghai automatically conferred a seat in the Politburo. When incumbent Shanghai party secretary Rui Xingwen received a promotion to the Central Secretariat in Beijing in 1987, Jiang took Rui’s vacated position and thus joined the Politburo.


Jiang Zemin stands at a lecturn.
Jiang Zemin stands at a lecturn.

Jiang delivers a speech in Beijing on Nov. 26, 1990, to mark the 10th anniversary of Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. TOMMY CHENG/AFP via Getty Images

Events surrounding the political turmoil of the late 1980s accelerated Jiang’s career beyond his wildest aspirations. Two key party leaders, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, were purged then due to their “political errors” of encouraging student protests and deviating from accepted ideology—giving a newly minted Politburo member like Jiang an opening. At a crucial moment in May 1989, Jiang—with support from the New Fourth Army faction and its allies and bolstered by his credentials as a foreign-trade specialist—became the chosen successor to the disgraced Zhao as CCP leader. (Although Deng might have favored another candidate as the new party general secretary, the failure of his two previous choices forced him to accede to strenuous lobbying by the New Fourth Army group and its allies for Jiang.)

Jiang’s first years in office were marked by uncertainty and worry. After the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests on June 4, 1989, the Central Committee hastily convened on June 23 to “vote” Jiang into the office of the general secretary. Within months, Deng announced that he would retire from the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission and hand nominal control of the military to Jiang, who had never commanded troops in his life. By the end of November 1989, Jiang nominally held all of the most important offices in the CCP.

Jiang Zemin and Deng Xiaoping shake hands.
Jiang Zemin and Deng Xiaoping shake hands.

Jiang (left), as CCP general secretary, shakes hands with retired paramount leader Deng Xiaoping at the end of the 14th Party Congress in Beijing in October 1992. AFP/Getty Images

Senior officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—especially Deng associates Yang Shangkun and his brother Yang Baibing—quickly began a campaign to consolidate power in the military, making Jiang increasingly look like little more than a PLA figurehead. However, with the help of Zeng Qinghong, the son of a well-connected revolutionary veteran, Jiang persuaded Deng to remove the Yang brothers from power at the 14th Party Congress in 1992.

By then, another crisis had arisen. In 1991, Deng called for rapid deregulation of China’s state-dominated economy, putting Jiang in an awkward position. Years of serving in the state sector had made Jiang hesitant to endorse Deng’s call, a reluctance that exposed him to scathing criticism from rivals. He soon reversed course, however, and supported Deng’s liberalization drive.


Jiang Zemin addresses the Chinese Communist Party Congress.
Jiang Zemin addresses the Chinese Communist Party Congress.

Jiang delivers remarks at the opening of the 14th Party Congress in Beijing on Oct. 12, 1992. MIKE FIALA/AFP via Getty Images

A consummate political infighter, Jiang’s greatest achievement in retrospect may be that he steered China through its transition away from the revolutionary era while avoiding the violence that marked that earlier period.

During Jiang’s rule from 1989 to 2002, China saw no significant purge of senior officials. When Deng died in 1997, the senior ranks of the CCP continued to rule with hardly a hiccup. Even the anti-corruption drive surrounding the Yuanhua smuggling case—a billion-dollar network involving scores of senior civilian and military officials—only led to the removal of a few PLA officers and their children, as well as scores of lower-level officials in Fujian.

This relative political stability bred corruption, but it also allowed nascent private enterprise and foreign investment to grow largely unimpeded by upheaval at the national level. Through political scheming but also through an intuitive willingness to share power, Jiang maintained unity and an unprecedented level of political tranquility throughout his rule.

Additionally, Jiang did not allow his experience as a state-sector bureaucrat to drive his economic policies as the leader of China. Beyond eventually endorsing Deng’s call for deregulation, he backed efforts to start a special economic zone across the river from Shanghai’s historical waterfront and also supported a round of monetary decentralization (before inflation forced him to rein in control). More important for China’s growth in the 1990s and 2000s, Jiang was a consistent supporter of foreign direct investment and supported preferential policies for overseas investors, including those from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

As the negotiations for China’s accession to the WTO heated up in the late 1990s, Jiang convinced his core constituencies in the state sector to accept a dramatic reduction in tariff rates in exchange for potentially much higher exports. This was a tough sell: The new export gains mainly accrued to foreign investors and private firms, not to the uncompetitive state sector. Still, pressure from Jiang, as well as promises of greater subsidies, won the day, and China entered the WTO.

Having served as a senior technocrat in China’s electronics industry, Jiang was also largely supportive of China’s hardware and software industries, including companies started by foreign or domestic private investors. Alibaba, for example, which eventually displaced the business of many state-owned retailers, got its start during the Jiang years and continued to prosper through the rule of his successor Hu Jintao.

Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton
Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton

Jiang (third from left) and U.S. President Bill Clinton (fourth from left) join other heads of state on the final day of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Seattle on Nov. 20, 1993. THERESE FRARE/AFP via Getty Images

China’s admission to the WTO caused stress in the Chinese state sector, but it unquestionably benefited China as a whole. Between 2000 and the end of 2019, Chinese exports rose tenfold from $250 billion to $2.5 trillion. Disposable per capita income likewise rose more than eightfold in the same period, meaningfully improving the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese, especially those residing in cities.

In retrospect, even Jiang’s 2000 berating of the Hong Kong reporter didn’t deserve the amount of derision it received. In some ways, the episode revealed a kind of openness and confidence that typified Jiang’s rule. He tolerated a free press in Hong Kong even though the territory was already under China’s sovereign rule, and he met with journalists and answered unscripted questions. Though he didn’t like that particular reporter’s question, she suffered no further repercussions even as she continued to tell the story of her confrontation with the leader of China.

Jiang used the repressive power of the party to stifle organized dissent in China, yet he had great tolerance for criticism of government policies voiced by individual intellectuals. He was also a fan of both classic and modern aspects of foreign culture and regularly regaled foreign visitors with his favorite Western melodies. He could recite parts of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address from memory. Although such idiosyncrasies invited snickering and mockery at the time, it’s unfortunate that the current leadership doesn’t share some of Jiang’s genuine interest in Western culture and the broader world.

Although China under Jiang was not a free or democratic place, many people in the region may be nostalgic now—pining for his steadiness, his openness, and his willingness to expose the regime to some criticism from the press and from society at large.

Victor Shih is the Ho Miu Lam chair in China and Pacific relations and an associate professor at the University of California San Diego’s School of Global Policy & Strategy. He is the author of Coalitions of the Weak: Elite Politics in China From Mao’s Stratagem to the Rise of Xi Jinping.

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