In China’s Own Eyes

Bruce Gilley – Foreign Affairs

Copyright Foreign Affairs, September/October 2005

The Man Who Changed China: The Life and Legacy of Jiang Zemin. Robert
Lawrence Kuhn. : Crown, 2005, 709 pp.$35.00
There are several ways to read The Man Who Changed China, an officially
sanctioned portrait of Jiang Zemin, China’s recently retired top leader,
written by the American investment banker Robert Lawrence Kuhn. Indeed, the
biggest challenge of this book is figuring out exactly how to approach it.
The most obvious way is as a biography. But although the book gives a
detailed account of Jiang’s public life, it fails to provide deeper insights
into his personality. Instead, it recycles commonly known information: that
Jiang is a social conservative, that he is a political reformist, and that he
likes science and engineering. The wooden narrative gets nowhere near the
aims of true biography.
One might also approach The Man Who Changed China as history. But the book’s
main claim — that Jiang is responsible for China’s remarkable transition
from disintegrating underachiever in 1989 to emerging superpower today — is
not substantiated. Kuhn does not define how China has changed since 1989; he
makes no attempt to refute alternative explanations for China’s boom, such as
the role of structural forces or of über-reformer Deng Xiaoping; and he
provides only smatterings of inside evidence to show how Jiang’s actions led
to particular outcomes. The claim that Jiang changed China is plausible. But
it is not one that this book proves.
Alternatively, one might read this book for the occasional behind-the-scenes
look at Chinese politics. When Jiang was elevated to the weakened position of
party chief in 1989, his sister recalls, “We certainly didn’t celebrate. His
appointment wasn’t worth celebrating.” His chief mentor, Wang Daohan, warns
of the “many complications and contradictions” of politics in
Beijing, “especially all the subtle conflicts between different interest
groups.” And the book fascinatingly describes several personal telephone
calls Jiang was forced to make to obtain political information or order
policy changes. Still, although Sinologists will hold these gems in trembling
hands, for the lay reader they are hardly worth hundreds of pages of agitprop.
There is, however, one way to approach this book profitably: as an
autobiography. The Man Who Changed China is valuable because it provides
insight into both how Jiang sees himself and how the Chinese Communist Party
(CCP) sees itself. It is, in other words, a text that reflects the
preoccupations and worldview of its subject. Beginning in 2001, a secret
state propaganda team oversaw the writing of the book. Ten percent of the
English version was censored for the Chinese edition, but 90 percent remained
the same: the book’s main intended market was China itself (where it appeared
simultaneously in Chinese and quickly sold a million copies). This is the
image that Jiang and China’s new leaders want their people to see. How then
do they style themselves, and what does this mean for China’s future?
To write his biography, Mao Zedong chose Edgar Snow, a member of the U.S.
Communist Party; Jiang chose Kuhn, a member of the U.S. business elite. An
investment banker with a zeal for science, high culture, and business, Kuhn
personifies the new ideology that has swept through China since 1989. China’s
state propaganda team even chose to leave the name of Kuhn’s Chinese
collaborator out of the book to emphasize the American financier’s
authorship. Nothing better symbolizes Jiang and his cohort’s transition to a
right-wing developmental dictatorship; every year, they carefully chip away
at their socialist heritage.
Accordingly, the book focuses on Jiang’s pragmatism and his reluctance to
take part in Mao’s political campaigns. This, however, is nonsense. Jiang was
an avid participant in the anti-rightist purges of the 1950s (as was Deng),
and he rode out the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution by cheering on the Red Guards
(as did China’s current leader, Hu Jintao). But credibility in China today
depends on distancing oneself from that radical leftist era, so Jiang and
other present-day Chinese leaders burnish their connections to the pre-1949
CCP, which enjoys great prestige as an upright, anti-imperialist brigade.
Again, in Jiang’s case, this portrayal is largely inaccurate. The book
repeats two “facts” that have been seriously questioned by independent
researchers in China: first, that Jiang was adopted by the widow of his
uncle, a Communist martyr, in 1939 (Jiang seems to have arranged this
adoption retroactively after the Communists won the civil war in 1949); and,
second, that he joined the underground CCP in 1946 (he probably did not join
until after 1949, prior to which he was not a party activist but a general
student activist).
Nonetheless, the vision is clear. What was once a utopian party seeking to
change the pre-1949 past is today a practical party seeking continuity with
it. Today’s CCP portrays itself as the inheritor of the remarkable long-term
capitalist boom that was initiated with the start of China’s republican
period in 1912 (and almost ruined by the party’s 1956-76 flirtation with
Stalinism). Beijing’s historic 2005 reconciliation with Taiwan’s Kuomintang
Party, which authored that boom, had far more symbolism on the mainland than
across the strait. Kuhn’s dry descriptions of Jiang’s year-to-year activities
repeatedly feature watchwords such as “science,” “consensus,” “pragmatism,”
and “revitalization” — this is a China picking up the pieces from the Qing
dynasty, not smashing them again.
Eager to maintain their pragmatic façade, China’s leaders now typically deny
that they ever engage in politics. Reading between the lines in The Man Who
Changed China, however, proves otherwise. The book directs some barbs at
former premier Zhu Rongji — “unpredictability, occasional impetuousness, and
inexhaustible capacity to rub people the wrong way” — and only faintly
praises Hu. Yet every time he purges an opponent or elevates an acolyte,
Jiang depicts himself as acting solely in the national interest. The book
argues, for example, that Jiang deserves credit for his peaceful handover of
power to Hu during 2002-4, the first time that the party changed leadership
without purges or bloodshed. But at the same time, the book endorses accounts
of the succession published in the West by party insiders suggesting that
Jiang did everything in his power to disrupt the process. Indeed, Kuhn shows
that Jiang worked meticulously to ensure that the transition favored him in
all respects, never considering his tactics a hindrance to Hu, much less
unseemly “politics.” In Kuhn’s rendering, Jiang tarries in handing over his
military post because Hu is inexperienced; he purges Li Ruihuan, a liberal
member of the Politburo Standing Committee, to avoid policy shifts; and so on.
The gap between self-perception and reality is clearest in Jiang’s dealings
with Taiwan. Jiang views himself as a dove, even though he oversaw a massive
military buildup against the island. The book’s key example of Jiang’s
supposed peace-loving nature is his reaction to President Bill Clinton’s 1995
decision to grant a travel visa to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, despite
telling Jiang he would not. “Even the president of a great, powerful nation
can tell a lie in your presence,” Jiang reportedly tells Chinese
diplomats. “The United States will have to pay a price.” Deng, dying, directs
Jiang to handle the matter “rationally,” but also not to let Taiwan “run
away.” Jiang responds by “test” launching two sets of missiles into the seas
off Taiwan in late 1995 and early 1996, drawing in a U.S. battle fleet — and
bringing China and the United States the closest they have come to war over
the issue. Yet Chinese hard-liners consider Jiang’s actions a sign of
weakness: a military officer pledges to “rebuild Taiwan from scratch,” and
two well-known party “liberals,” Qiao Shi and Li Ruihuan, mock Jiang for
his “soft line.” Within the hall of mirrors of party politics, Jiang’s
actions toward Taiwan appear restrained, even conciliatory.
Another discrepancy between the outside account and the view from within CCP
headquarters concerns China’s relations with North Korea. Kuhn portrays
Beijing’s tepid support for Pyongyang as due to structural more than
historical or personal reasons. Although domestic credibility is indeed at
stake — “decades of Chinese propaganda [have] promoted the North Korean
cause” — the structural fear is that a weakened North Korea would collapse
or go fully nuclear, and either outcome would threaten China. Knowing that
China is caught in a bind, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il regularly extorts
aid. Kuhn quotes an unnamed insider as saying that Jiang’s attempts to push
Pyongyang usually backfired: “If Jiang called [Kim], he might hang up.”
Beijing thinks it is getting no credit for attempting to defuse such a
difficult situation. Outside observers might blame it for creating the
problem in the first place — China, after all, encouraged the war that
divided the peninsula. But Beijing sees itself as a victim of this crisis,
not its author.
The development of closer, more equal relations between China and the United
States is arguably the one positive element of the Jiang era that can
rightfully be laid at his doorstep, and Kuhn devotes several sections to it.
Jiang is portrayed as singularly concerned with the relationship, even in the
face of the nationalistic rage of China’s disgruntled youth and the
unremitting criticism of remnant CCP Stalinists. Believing that the road to
China’s great-power ambitions runs through Washington, Jiang made a bet to
err on the side of good relations: he paid a fence-mending visit to the
United States in 1993; he decided that Hu would appear on television in his
place to address the nation after the U.S. bombing of China’s Belgrade
embassy in 1999; and he quickly settled the crisis over a stranded U.S. spy
plane on Hainan Island in 2001.
Despite Jiang’s efforts, there is no evidence that Hu currently shares this
vision, and every indication that he favors an Asia-centered strategy
instead. The Jiangist philosophy may ultimately loom as the path not taken,
but it will remain the dominant countervision if Hu’s more standoffish
approach begins to fail.
Despite the books on “the China threat,” “the China boom,” and “the China
century” now pouring off the presses, the media occasionally contain hints —
even muffled cries of terror — indicating that some senior leaders in
Beijing may not be so confident about their country’s future. In a March 2005
interview with Der Spiegel, China’s deputy minister of the environment, Pan
Yue, warned of “a political crisis” if uncontrolled economic growth
continues, noting bluntly that the “miracle will end soon.” The warning
signs — environmental damage, rural insurrection, worsening corruption, and
millenarian movements such as the Falun Gong — are everywhere. But
expressing such sentiments above the din of CCP propaganda is politically
dangerous because the party’s rule is built almost entirely on the promise
that the somewhat imagined “miracle” will continue.
Kuhn is nonetheless allowed to offer a few such cautions. He quotes Jiang’s
wife as saying that the files on her husband’s desk always dismayed
her: “Explosions here, rioting there. Murders, corruption, terrorism —
little that was nice.” Kuhn is even permitted to slip in a warning from Jiang
himself. As he edits the communiqué of the 2002 16th National Congress of the
CCP (during which he ultimately steps down as party chief), Jiang asks
drafters to heighten the “sense of insecurity” in the document, rather than
let it blather on as usual about the party’s achievements. “Don’t think the
good times will last forever,” Jiang tells the drafters as he covers the
second-to-last paragraph in red ink. Here is an excerpt from the resulting
paragraph, published in the official press:
In the face of a world that is far from being tranquil and the formidable
tasks before us, all Party members must be mindful of the potential danger
and stay prepared against adversities in times of peace. We must be keenly
aware of the rigorous challenges brought about by ever-sharpening
international competition as well as risks and difficulties that may arise on
our road ahead.
Those are the words of a man who sees China more clearly than the fans and
fearmongers abroad — the same people who thought that Brazil, Russia, and
Japan were going to take over the world. Although The Man Who Changed China
overall seeks to portray China’s cultural and national confidence, it raises
more warning signs than one would expect.
Kuhn says that Jiang fears democracy as a threat to growth and national
stability, but there are also signs that he and his successors see the
writing on the wall. “A premature democracy would reallocate resources to
political debate and thereby sacrifice mid- and long-term economic and social
benefits for short-term political freedoms,” Kuhn writes, essentially
speaking for Jiang. The word “premature” is revealing. Jiang’s views are
presented only at the end of the book and only obliquely, but they display
the loss of faith in dictatorship that has usually prefigured elite-led
transitions to democracy. “There are far more variables in the social
sciences than there are in engineering,” Jiang is quoted as saying, with
philosophical gravity. “Therefore social sciences are more complicated. The
more I learn, the more I realize how much we have yet to learn. As for
political issues, they are more complicated still.” Kuhn then editorializes
that China’s post-Jiang leaders “will react more analytically and less
emotionally to historically encumbered issues,” such as “the changes still
needed in China’s governance and the Communist Party.”
There is much in the official worldview of China’s leaders that is horrific,
and Kuhn dutifully and unapologetically details Jiang’s more odious opinions:
that the thousands of people summarily executed every year in China are
merely “criminals” deserving punishment, despite the serious flaws in China’s
judicial process; that left to his own devices, the Dalai Lama would create a
slave society in Tibet, and China’s brutal invasion and occupation of Tibet
is comparable to the Union army’s march on the Confederacy; and so on. But
the virtue of The Man Who Changed China is that it provides a near-perfect
representation of this worldview. Read this book not to understand China or
its politics, but to understand the mindsets of China’s leaders — from the
inside out.

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