Looking back on the Jiang years
By Jaime FlorCruz
(CNN) -- Watching President Jiang Zemin bask in the limelight during the recent Communist Party congress makes me a bit nostalgic.
Jiang was relatively unknown when I first interviewed him for TIME Magazine 17 years ago. As the mayor of Shanghai, China's largest metropolis, he said he was mainly preoccupied with the housing and transport problems-- and the disposal of tons of watermelon rinds piled up in the streets.
He came across as an affable apparatchik who took pride in speaking in English. When I complimented his wide range of interests, he said he was a "only a Jack of all trades but a master of none."
Four years later, he had to be a master of everything. In June 1989, after public protests in Tiananmen deposed a group of reformist leaders, Deng Xiaoping handpicked him to be the new party chief and successor.
But for many years, Jiang languished under the shadow of Deng, regularly dismissed as a political lightweight and a "fengpai" - a "weather vane" who swings with the political winds.
Even after Deng died in 1997, some China-watchers darkly predicted Jiang's imminent downfall.
I did not quite agree. In a round-table discussion aired on CNN's special program "The Death of Deng Xiaoping", I ventured to say that Jiang had done pretty well in spite of the problems he faced and that, if he appeared reticent or weak, it was because he was simply behaving like a U.S. Vice President.
In fact, he has shown more political savvy than anyone thought he had, especially after Deng's demise.
He wore all the hats that mattered, taking the No. 1 titles in the party, the government and the military. He showered the PLA brass with perks and top ranks.
He promoted Shanghai colleagues and old proteges to the politburo and provinces. And he outsmarted his political rivals, forcing some to retire early and jailing others for alleged corruption.
Jiang looked more confident when I interviewed him again in 1997, just before his fist state visit to the U.S. After all, images of white-tie dinners and red-carpet receptions gave him great face at home and higher stature overseas.
Many times, he got carried away-bursting into Tang poetry and English songs.
But Jiang has good reasons to be so exuberant.
During his 13-year rule, China has survived the Asian financial crisis and the diplomatic military standoffs with the U.S. Kenneth Lieberthal, a China-hand who served as assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, recalls: "(Jiang) has been very tough to deal with on some issues. At times, like in the wake of the tragic bombing of their embassy in Belgrade, it has been a very tough relationship.
"But at the end of the day, he has seen China's interests as being highly compatible with cooperative relations with the U.S. and has acted on that."
National pride has risen under Jiang. China regained sovereign control of Hong Kong and Macau. Beijing won its bid to host the 2008 Olympics and China is now a member of the World Trade Organization.
More remarkably, China's economy has grown at an average of 9.3 percent in the past 13 years. Wang Hongbin, party chief of Nanjie Village in Henan Province, enthuses: "His biggest contribution in the past 13 years is that the party stuck to its central goals of maintaining stability and improving the people's living standards."
Not a bad legacy for a leader who many China-watchers thought was just a flash in the pan.
But Jiang's legacy is a checkered one. Political scientist Scot Murray Tanner opines that while Jiang will be credited to the economic boom which helped revived the hold on power of the Chinese Communist Party after Tiananmen, "it is also going to be a legacy of having delayed the key political reforms that China must eventually face if it is to avoid significant unrest in the future."
Says Chinese writer Dai Qing: "Under his 13-year leadership. (Jiang) did not push China towards democracy. He could not accomplish that."
For Jiang and his successors, the challenge is to find a new dynamic for China that can help ensure social stability even when the inevitable economic and political disappointments occur.
The old and new leaders may seem collegial during last week's political meeting, but until Beijing sets up institutions that provide legitimacy and voice for the people, it will be premature to say that China will be perpetually stable after Jiang steps out of center stage.