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Meet Jiang Zemin
Americans are suspicious of China's president, but he hopes his visit here will make us like him
By Anthony Spaeth/TIME
BEIJING (TIME, Oct. 27) -- When the leader of the world's most populous country speaks, people listen--though it isn't always easy. Jiang Zemin, President of China, gives speeches loaded with fusty rhetoric, like "the primary stage of socialism" and "We will strive unswervingly to resolutely uphold Deng Xiaoping thought." His slicked-back hair, enormous spectacles and cryogenically fixed smile smack of the old-fashioned apparatchik. So wooden a leader is often in danger of being upstaged by his own podium.
Appearances can be misleading. When Senator Dianne Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco, she gave a dinner at her home for Jiang, then mayor of sister city Shanghai. The future President of China crooned When We Were Young, danced through the night, and later jokingly informed an American visitor that he had "left his heart" in that city by the Bay. When Richard Nixon visited Beijing in 1989, Jiang interrupted their meeting to leap to his feet and recite Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, in English and from memory. (Nixon felt compelled to get out of his chair and declaim along.) In the Philippines last year at a soiree on the presidential yacht, Jiang danced the cha-cha and sang a duet of Love Me Tender with President Fidel Ramos. When Jiang finally met President Clinton, Ramos advised, "Surprise him with the song."
It certainly would surprise Americans to learn that China's boss, who arrives for his summit with Clinton next week, has a human face. Jiang's visit is raising hopes of a reconciliation between the two geopolitical giants that will end eight years of official frostiness precipitated by China's 1989 bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Jiang certainly expects that. In his exclusive interview with Time, he declared, "At present, Sino-American relations have a favorable opportunity for further improvement."
That will depend in some measure on tangible progress on a range of issues from human rights to nuclear proliferation and trade. But much will hinge on Jiang himself and on what he says and does on a trip that will take him to Honolulu, Williamsburg, Va., Washington, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston and Los Angeles. While the American public regards him--if they regard him at all--as a cipher, until recently he was dismissed by some U.S. officials as a lightweight incapable of surviving the hardball intrigues at the top level of Chinese politics. But since the death of his mentor, Deng Xiaoping, in February, Jiang's reputation has been completely rewritten. He is now acknowledged as the man to deal with in China for the foreseeable future, a President firmly in control and committed to making a difference.
So it's time for Americans to get better acquainted with the ruler of the world's incipient other superpower. In fact, the two sides of Jiang go a long way toward explaining a remarkable career.
Jiang's main break, of course, was being chosen by Deng as his successor in 1989. It didn't hurt that Deng lived on for eight years as Jiang's protector or that he eventually grew too feeble to dump his protege--the fate of two previous heirs apparent. But there's also a sense in China that the relatively nonideological, technocratic Jiang may be the right leader for a China bursting with political, social and economic tensions, that what China needs now is an adroit, adaptable pol rather than a towering titan.
Born into an intellectual family in Yangzhou in China's eastern Jiangsu province, Jiang was adopted at an early age by his uncle, a veteran revolutionary, who was killed fighting for the communists in the civil war. Teachers described the boy as an "illustrious student," and he attended a provincial university before switching to engineering studies at Shanghai's Jiaotong University. In what was then China's naughtiest and most revolutionary-minded city, he discovered Benny Goodman and English films as well as communist politics. He joined the party at the age of 19, and once had to escape the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek by hiding in the trunk of his university president's car.
Compared with predecessors Mao and Deng, he enjoyed an easy revolution, and he had a far more worldly upbringing. "I wouldn't describe him as a closet Western-culture buff," says Kenneth Lieberthal, a China scholar at the University of Michigan, "but he has a more appreciative attitude than many Chinese." He once told an American visitor that he regretted not earning a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but one of his sons did get his from Philadelphia's Drexel University and worked for Hewlett-Packard in California before returning to China.
For decades, Jiang worked in the boiler room of the new China, running soap and candy factories. He spent a year in Moscow learning the wonders of Soviet auto production. He made it to Beijing in 1976 as the administrator of the First Ministry of Machine-Building Industry. It was an unimpressive-sounding title, but it was his first shot, at the age of 50, at the higher ranks of Chinese politics. He was part of the team charged with transforming Shenzhen, a sleepy village across the border from Hong Kong, into one of Deng's first boomtowns, and he eventually rose to Minister of Electronics Industry.
The engineer from Shanghai still had much to learn about life at the top. A friend and former colleague recalls an incident in which Jiang was asked for a special favor by one of the Old Guard generation of revolutionary heroes who wielded enormous power. Jiang refused, saying it would bend the rules. He suffered for that in 1984, when the Old Guard refused to support his candidacy for the vice-premiership. By the time he was appointed mayor of Shanghai, in 1985, he had learned his lesson. "He spent a lot of time and effort pleasing the Old Guard who would visit Shanghai during the winter," says the colleague. "He realized that abiding strictly by party principles wouldn't do."
The 1989 Tiananmen episode, one of China's most divisive modern tragedies, was the turning point in Jiang's career. Three weeks after the protests were quelled with violence and bloodshed, Deng named Jiang the new General Secretary of the Communist Party. The choice was a surprise. Jiang's record in Shanghai was solid, if unspectacular, but in the prism of Chinese politics he had other things going for him. He was now a favorite of the Old Guard. During the early days of the Tiananmen protests, he had sacked the editor of a daringly liberal, independent newspaper in Shanghai called the World Economic Herald, an act that proved his toughness to Beijing. His main rival for the job was Premier Li Peng, who had ordered the martial law that preceded the Tiananmen killings and been widely reviled for it.
There was an additional factor in the mayor's rise. The leadership in Beijing was bitterly divided over whether Deng's economic reforms should continue, and a strong faction was already slowing them down. Jiang had a usefully malleable view: he was called "the Weathervane" for astute shifts in stance that made him acceptable to both sides.
In 1993 he was named China's President. But his perch at the top was extremely tenuous, almost entirely dependent on Deng's support. For that reason, Jiang was as reticent and correct as possible in his first years in power. When CNN interviewed the new President in 1993, he wanted to read all his answers from a TelePrompTer. On those occasions when he allowed himself a little spontaneity, it tended to backfire. In a 1990 interview with Barbara Walters, he described the Tiananmen killings as "much ado about nothing," prompting outrage in the West. "He is a lightweight," decided a Clinton Administration official in 1995. "Buffoon would be too strong a word."
In retrospect, it's clear those were major misjudgments. Throughout this low-profile period, Jiang was cleverly shoring up his position in Beijing. He cultivated the military, one of China's most significant power centers, and slowly gained control of its upper ranks. When Beijing and Washington found themselves staring missile to battleship in the Taiwan Straits in mid-1995, in the most unequivocal U.S. show of support for Taiwan in recent memory, Jiang realized that the confrontation was perilous, and though he technically approved the missile launches, he was able to lay public blame on hard-line generals for a serious overreaction. Jiang launched a forceful anticorruption drive, pleasing a populace that bitterly resented the cheating. Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the campaign's first victims was Beijing Party Secretary Chen Xitong, who had amassed a fortune under questionable circumstances--and whose clout Jiang was eager to neutralize.
Last month, at the 15th Communist Party Congress, Jiang unveiled his boldest maneuver yet. The President proposed a radical privatization of many of the country's deficit-ridden state-owned enterprises, his first attempt at visionary change and one that runs a high risk of widespread social unrest. At the end of the Party Congress, Jiang announced the election of a new Politburo, China's top policymaking body, and that China's armed forces would be shrunk by 500,000 men.
That remarkable performance forced a worldwide re-evaluation. Advises Arnold Kantor, a former U.S. diplomat now at the Forum for International Policy in Washington: "One shouldn't be fooled. Jiang is enormously smart and capable, but his persona is unpretentious and folksy, almost intentionally disarming." Such revisionism has prompted people to recall earlier moments when Jiang showed his bite. At a meeting in Beijing with a prominent American, he praised the distinguished visitor in English for an inspired analysis of China's needs. Then in an aside in Chinese, he muttered, "This guy doesn't know a thing about China."
No one is sure how Jiang will comport himself in the U.S. In a meeting with Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin last month in Beijing, he displayed much confidence and little arrogance, giving the impression that he has no desire to act as if the U.S. is an enemy. Yet Jiang has to watch his back: hard-line Premier Li Peng still has influence and supporters whom Jiang has to placate. But he has clearly proved himself a capable wheeler-dealer with one great advantage in China. "He is an opportunist," says a Chinese political scientist in Beijing, "because he is bereft of any ideological belief and ready to embrace any ideas that suit him." That talent will undoubtedly come in handy as the very new face of communist China visits the headquarters of the capitalist West for the first time.
--Reported by Sandra Burton/Hong Kong, Dean Fischer/Washington, Jaime A. FlorCruz and Mia Turner/Beijing and Nelly Sindayen/Manila
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