Jiang Zemin obituary: shrewd political manipulator

Re-asserted Chinese Communist party authority in the wake of Tiananmen Square before completing the dismantling of Maoist China

Born: August 17th, 1926. Died: November 30th, 2022.

Jiang Zemin, who has died aged 96, was put in charge of the Chinese Communist party as its general secretary in May 1989 amid the turmoil of Tiananmen Square, in a move that destroyed any chance of a peaceful outcome to the protests. By siding with the conservative forces who bloodily suppressed the students’ call for democracy and reform, Jiang secured his succession to the presidency four years later.

By the time he retired in 2002, China had been transformed. Shopping centres rose along the Avenue of Everlasting Peace, where tanks and armoured cars had killed protesters. Young families ate in McDonald’s and KFC instead of buying pancakes from street vendors, and a new metro ran under the square, carrying the tens of thousands who once had cycled to work. And in the year before Jiang stepped down, China “entered the world” – the phrase used by the Chinese media for joining the World Trade Organization. In spite of some shaky episodes, Jiang also succeeded in building a stable relationship with the US.

In his parting speech, at the 16th party congress in November 2002, Jiang completed the dismantling of Maoist China begun by his patron Deng Xiaoping, when he formally invited China’s “new social strata” – private entrepreneurs, employees of foreign firms and the self-employed – to join the party.


There was no more talk of the “ultimate goal of communism”: the guiding ideology instead was Jiang’s much vaunted and awkwardly phrased doctrine of the Three Represents. These urged the party to pursue the goal of national prosperity through advancing the “productive forces”, promoting national culture and defending the “fundamental interests” of the Chinese people.

Jiang had another virtue for the ageing leaders headed by Deng, who chose him in 1989 when the Communist party seemed to have forfeited all public trust: he was no closet reformer and would ensure that the party stayed in power. He could be ruthless and vindictive in this pursuit – notoriously so when he suppressed the Falun Gong spiritual cult after its members had demonstrated peacefully outside his Beijing office in 1999. A shrewd political manipulator, Jiang would plant some of his people in positions of power to complicate life for his successor as president, Hu Jintao, until Jiang’s influence faded at the next party congress in 2007. While not greatly liked, Jiang had a quirky personality that raised him above the generally less colourful figures of the post-Mao party apparatus.

Jiang belonged to the “third generation” consisting of those leaders who had “joined the revolution” in the 1940s after the Long March and during or soon after the defeat of Japan. His own background was barely revolutionary. Yangzhou on the Yangtze river, where he was born, is described by his non-official western biographer Bruce Gilley (in Tiger on the Brink, 1998) as the equivalent – at that time – of Bath in the UK or New Haven, Connecticut, in the US. Several of Jiang’s family were scholars, although not from the landed gentry.

Jiang’s more consensual approach to internal political life now seems very distant from the assertive and increasingly repressive rule of the current leader, Xi Jinping

Jiang’s father forced him to learn classical Chinese texts by rote before he went to school. Later he recalled developing a love of western classical music – Schubert’s Ave Maria and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony were favourites. At Yangzhou’s progressive secondary school, Jiang was taught to recite the Gettysburg address in English.

As an engineering student in Nanjing during the Japanese occupation, Jiang was not politically active, although he claimed later to have been a secret communist supporter. He joined the party in postwar Shanghai in 1946, when repression by Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist (Kuomintang) government and the approach of civil war forced many young Chinese to choose sides. He played a minor role in student protests, painting cartoons and playing the two-stringed fiddle in anti-government dramatic productions.

As a factory engineer in Shanghai, Jiang belonged to a technical elite of which the new people’s government needed to make full use when it took power in 1949. By 1954 he was in Beijing, helping to draw up a plan for the First Ministry of the Machine-Building Industry, before transferring to Changchun in the northeast, China’s industrial heartland.

He was then sent for a year’s training at the Stalin auto works in Moscow – this was at the time when China sought to learn from its Russian “big brother”. The experience gave him a smattering of Russian vocabulary and lyrics to add to his stock of English. In later life he would show off as a somewhat tedious party trick what he remembered of both languages.

Jiang spent six years at the Changchun car factory, in charge of the crucial power plant, where he had to cope with the extravagant demands for increased production during the Great Leap Forward of 1958-61. He appears to have delivered the goods whenever possible, earning the reputation of someone who got results and did not step out of line.

Transferred to a research institute in Shanghai – soon to be the centre of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) – he continued to keep his head down. During the upheaval he was suspended from work for three years but not treated badly. By 1970 he was back in Beijing, working on plans to import machinery plant from eastern Europe.

When China embarked on economic reform after Mao’s death in 1976, Jiang seemed a natural choice to solicit foreign trade and investment for the new special economic zones along the southern coast. By 1982 he was minister of electronics, and oversaw the launching of China’s first communications satellite. Three years later he was mayor of Shanghai, charming foreign businessmen with his snatches of English.

Shanghai gave Jiang a test of his political as well as technological skills. He kept the student protests of winter 1986 under control and handled the more turbulent protests of 1989 without resorting to military force. He had been promoted to the politburo in 1987, part of an intake of new provincial faces being prepared to succeed the party elders. In May 1989, as the political centre unravelled in Beijing while the pro-democracy movement filled Tiananmen Square, Jiang was summoned secretly by Deng and told to prepare for the top party job of general secretary. He would replace Zhao Ziyang, who had brought about his own downfall by opposing the imposition of martial law.

In the years after the Beijing massacre, Jiang personified the economic reforms launched by Deng in order to restore a measure of public confidence in the party. Jiang was never short of self-confidence – another essential as the Chinese leadership became more exposed to the outside world. Sometimes this led him to embarrassing displays of vanity: in 1996 he startled King Juan Carlos of Spain by combing his hair during a welcome ceremony. But it also enabled him to put on a convincing performance in his famous double act with Bill Clinton in Beijing two years later, swapping thoughts in public on everything from democracy to Tibet.

“He’s a man of extraordinary intellect, very high energy, a lot of vigour for his age, or indeed for any age,” the US president enthused. “He has vision; he can visualise; he can imagine a future that is different from the present.” The members of the minuscule China Democracy party, who took this at face value and announced their intention of organising politically, soon learned their mistake, earning savage prison sentences of up to 15 years.

In February 1997 Jiang wept as he gave the funeral oration for Deng: the tears may have been genuine. Deng had survived long enough for Jiang to establish himself, disproving conventional wisdom that a party general secretary without any power base in the armed forces would be vulnerable. In Deng’s last enfeebled years, Jiang was already beginning to claim ideological territory in which he had previously shown no interest. This was partly in response to the tidal wave of corruption that threatened to undermine the party, while the public became more alienated and turned to new religions. It was also the ritual prop for a supreme leader. As state president, party leader and head of the military commission, Jiang’s ambition grew as his position strengthened. His admirers now claimed that “the thought of Jiang Zemin” would guide China into the new millennium. By the year 2000, a team of theorists was hard at work packaging his speeches for publication.

A more practical achievement was Jiang’s success in riding out an uneasy period in relations with the new US administration of George W Bush. Upon his inauguration in January 2001, Bush made it clear that he regarded the relationship with China as one of “strategic competition” rather than of co-operation. A chance event three months later, when a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter and made a forced landing on Hainan Island, raised tension further. However Jiang resisted the protests of Chinese chauvinists and was convinced by his foreign policy advisers that maintaining stable relations with the US should remain China’s long-term goal.

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, Jiang moved quickly to assure Bush that China stood by his side in the “war against terrorism” and Chinese commentators noted with relief that China had a new value for Washington. Within the next year, Jiang and Bush met three times on friendly terms.

Though Jiang stepped down from party leadership in 2002, and from the state presidency at the national people’s congress in 2003, he stubbornly hung on to his other state position as head of the central military commission. More than 7 per cent of the normally docile congress delegates showed their disquiet by abstaining or voting against this appointment. Jiang surrendered this last post in September 2004. This date also marked the cut-off point for the three volumes of his selected works published two years later, which Hu loyally called “a major event in the political life of the party and the state”.

At the 17th party congress in 2007, Jiang still sat next to Hu at the podium and heard more praise for his “important thoughts”, but no one doubted that Jiang had “stepped down from the stage” – the Chinese expression (xiatai) for political retirement. He had one consolation: just a month before, he had stood on a different stage, at Beijing’s new National Grand theatre, and sung snatches of arias from both western and Peking opera. Although regarded as one of the “party elders”, thereafter Jiang rarely appeared in public because of ill health.

Jiang’s more consensual approach to internal political life now seems very distant from the assertive and increasingly repressive rule of the current leader, Xi Jinping. The stable relationship that Jiang achieved with the US, already weakened, was further weakened by president Donald Trump’s trade war, and more recently by growing mistrust on both sides over a host of issues including Taiwan, the South China Sea and human rights, with both powers framing the relationship in more antagonistic terms.

Jiang is survived by his wife, Wang Yeping, whom he married in 1949, and their sons, Mengheng and Mengkang.