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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story



New biographies analyze Mao's successors

IN THE BEGINNING THERE was Mao. Then, Deng. Now it is Jiang Thought. When Jiang Zemin became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 1989, many saw him as a transitory successor to the disgraced Zhao Ziyang. But Jiang defied expectations to emerge as unrivaled party leader, whose grip extended to command of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Time, then, for a new assessment. Journalist Bruce Gilley thus sets out to reappraise Jiang and to examine the nature of post-Deng Xiaoping politics in China. He does well on both counts. Tiger on the Brink: Jiang Zemin and China's New Elite (University of California Press, Berkeley, 410 pages, $29.95) is probably the best biography of the Chinese president available in English.

So what is Jiang's governing philosophy? To the author, he is a pragmatist -- a middle-of-the-roader rather than committed Marxist. A beneficiary of Deng's economic reforms since 1978, Jiang has been keen to keep up momentum on that front. But, as the heavy jail terms recently meted out to political activists show, that does not mean he tolerates multi-party democracy. Political changes would be aimed at strengthening one-party rule.

According to Gilley, the leader has focused on areas that Deng had neglected or left unresolved: patriotism, anti-corruption, rebuilding the party, social rejuvenation and redefining the state's role in the economy. Formally presented at the 15th Party Congress in 1997, these themes are part of Jiang's vision to aid China's transition from a Marxist state into a "developmental dictatorship." Besides, they help consolidate his authority.

Perceptions that Jiang was "plucked out of nowhere" for the top job are highly inaccurate. In the mid-1980s, he was already in line for a senior post at the party center. Besides being an economic reformer, Jiang had the tough instincts in dealing with dissent that Deng was seeking. Take his clampdown on the World Economic Herald, a platform for China's liberal intellectuals (over a call to re-evaluate the official verdict on Zhao's late predecessor, Hu Yaobang). Jiang was apparently reluctant to suppress the journal. But having decided to suspend the Herald and sack its chief editor, he stood his ground in the ensuing furor, which included a drubbing from Zhao.

Jiang's lack of strong factional allies were at once his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. He instinctively adopted policies that would ensure backing from the leadership. Typically his support in the PLA derived from the fact that his policies largely coincided with the interests of those who might oppose his authority. In the wake of Tiananmen, his most important tasks were to re-establish political stability and maintain the momentum of economic reform. To the writer, Jiang was "the right man at the right time to shoulder these tasks."

But the president did not have it all his own way. Both the PLA and party leaders sought to impose curbs on his rule. The sacking of Ba Zhongtan, a retired general whom he appointed to head the paramilitary People's Armed Police, and Jiang's failure to secure the party chairmanship at the 15th Congress amply illustrate the real limits on his authority.

Tiger offers little that is new to experts. But Gilley's meticulously collected data and skillful presentation make the biography an asset to Sinologists. Entertaining descriptions of personal quirks add to its readability. An example: Jiang's predilection for combing his hair in public. The author traces this habit to the superior skills of barbers in Jiang's native Yangzhou, his university days in Shanghai and his humiliation at having to adopt a crew cut to survive the Cultural Revolution. It seems his spin doctors and even his wife dared not advise him against such behavior -- until snaps of his grooming during a 1996 visit to Spain were splashed across the world.

In many small ways, Gilley reveals his excellent understanding of Chinese politics. Rejecting conventional interpretations, for example, he downplays the idea of a Machiavellian Shanghai faction maneuvering to gain political ascendancy in the capital. Rather, he argues, Shanghai acted "more like an incubator for high-flying cadres" whom Party elders had marked for future promotion.

Two elements of Jiang's "spiritual culture" were directly linked to Mao Zedong's control of the arts and media. Like Mao, he preferred works of literature and art which would shore up the Party's grip on power. Similarly, the media are valued for maintaining the party line, rather than for liveliness or interesting coverage. In a sense, Jiang had greatness thrust upon him in 1989. But it is no accident that he survived and, by mid-1997, emerged as "the most powerful man in Asia."

-- By Joseph Cheng

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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