You are here

The death of Jiang Zemin and the ghosts of 1989 haunting China

Image from Roman Kubanskiy, WikipediaJiang Zemin, who died in late November, was arguably the most consequential Chinese leader of the post-Mao era. And at what feels like a pivotal moment for the People's Republic, it is worth considering why so many Chinese are looking back fondly on the Jiang era. And also what his rise and rule can reveal about power politics in China.

Under Jiang's stewardship as general secretary the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rebuilt itself after the Tiananmen Square massacre, he helped China navigate uncertain global politics after the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, join the World Trade Organisation and be awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics. Most importantly he oversaw consistent strong economic growth, with GDP quadrupling during his tenure, which has constituted the Party's major response to the Tiananmen challenge. Since then the CCP's unspoken, but clearly understood, social contract with the Chinese people has been “Do not ask for freedom and democracy and we will allow you to become rich”.

Jiang is also the first Chinese leader to die since Zhao Ziyang in 2005, who was ousted as general secretary in 1989 for siding with the student protesters. And while never charged with a crime, only “serious mistakes”, he spent the rest of his life under house arrest. His passing was barely acknowledged, at least officially, with just a single sentence at the end of the nightly news broadcasts, and then a 59 word obituary in national newspapers the following day. By contrast, Jiang has been granted a full state funeral, with the lavishness of the ceremony only being matched by the lavishness of the security surrounding the event, as is customary for the CCP.

The recent wave of mass protests on the streets of major Chinese cities have not only been about Covid restrictions. Rather, some are openly challenging the Party's rule, making this the most precarious moment for the CCP since 1989. What is almost always forgotten in the west is that the inciting incident that brought the students to Tienanmen Square in April of that year was to mourn the death of Zhao's predecessor as CCP leader, Hu Yaobang. It was only afterwards that those assembled there and elsewhere in China started calling for liberalisation and democratisation. Therefore at a time of national reflection such as this, many high ups in Zhongnanhai will be concerned that some might use this moment to talk things other than the dearly departed.

After the swift political demise of two successive reformists, Jiang was promoted as a compromise candidate to restore order to the Party. He was deemed acceptable both to those who wished to continue the self-evidently successful economic development path of Hu and Zhao, as well as to reactionaries who wanted to stamp out any idea of political reform and reassert the dominant role of the CCP over all aspects of Chinese society. Jiang, as Shanghai party boss, had won plaudits for the bloodless way he handled protests in his city, and without any connection to the tragic events in Beijing his record could be presented as clean. This was crucial at a time when China's fragile economy was subject to heavy international sanctions in the wake of the Tiananmen crackdown.

The method by which Jiang was chosen to replace Zhao shows that no Chinese leader is ever completely safe; come a genuine national crisis the Party will always assert its authority over an individual. It also illustrates the unique (and strange) way the CCP functions. Unlike other communist states, such as the former Soviet Union, the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party has two levels. The broader Politburo usually has around 25 members who also occupy top government and military posts. Then there is a smaller grouping of the highest ranking officials, the Standing Committee, from which the general secretary is appointed, that consists of between 5-11 men (no woman has ever reached this level).

In June of 1989, just 20 days after the tanks entered Tiananmen Square, Jiang Zemin was elevated to both the Politburo Standing Committee and the leadership of China, while Zhao was dismissed. Jiang was not elected but rather anointed by a group of influential party elders, lead by Deng Xiaoping at a meeting at his home. These men (one of whom was Xi Zhongxun, Xi Jinping's father) were members of what was known as the Central Advisory Commission, and despite some not even being members of the Politburo, were the ones really making decisions. For example, Deng resigned from his final official role, as chairman of the Central Military Commission, on 9 November 1989, yet he was still effectively running China until shortly before his death in 1997.

This is the long political afterlife of Chinese leaders, who through a combination of respect for elders, and making sure people they promoted are installed in key positions, continue to wield significant power and influence even in nominal retirement. Jiang accomplished this through the “Shanghai Gang”, loyalists who had risen through the party during his time there. At the 16th Party Congress in 2002, while Jiang was succeeded as general secretary by Hu Jintao, six members of the Shanghai Gang were appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee, and three remained there after the 17th Party Congress in 2007. Thus the Jiang era can be said to have also constituted the entirety of the Hu Administration, a man recognised even at the time as a weak leader.

It was only after Xi Jinping succeeded Hu in 2012, and his manoeuvring of his own faction into the key positions of power, that he eclipsed Jiang as the true paramount leader. But only once he had accounted for Bo Xilai, the first of many political rivals who would be annihilated by Xi in the name of anti-corruption. It's noteworthy that while not a member of the Shanghai Gang, Bo's rise through the Party came in part thanks to Jiang's patronage. (Like Xi, he too was a Communist Party “princeling” as his father, Bo Yibo, was also a CCP elder and bitter rival of Xi Zhongxun going back to the 1950s, but that's a whole other story).

In an influential and controversial essay penned at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the jurist Xu Zhangrun favourably compared Jiang era to the present. He declared it the “relative apogee of possibility under the Communists; since then, there has been an evident downward curve” to what he described as Xi's “big data totalitarianism”. It was not just Jiang's sometimes buffoonish persona that highlights this contrast, a leader who would comb his hair and sing in public, one who liked to show off his ability to speak multiple languages, or the toad memes. It's a nostalgia for the relative liberalism of that time. Nowadays everything is controlled, from people's movements to what they can say online, such a posting pictures of Winnie the Pooh. China and the ruling CCP face many challenges from stagnating economic growth to an ageing and shrinking population. But even should the Party prevail, it's hard to imagine many Chinese citizens will feel nostalgic for this current epoch in the way they now look back on the times of Jiang Zemin.

Originally from: