A look back: Jiang Zemin and a more accountable China

China's former president Jiang Zemin, who led the opening to the West, has disappeared from public view and is said to be seriously ill. Two sinologists discuss his legacy.
A billboard in Yinchuan of China's four 'paramount leaders' since the revolution in 1949. From left: Current President Hu Jintao, his predecessor Jiang Zemin, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaping. (Reuters)

When the long-serving, former Chinese president Jiang Zemin disappeared from public view — most conspicuously during the celebrations earlier this month marking the anniversary of the China Communist Party — sinologists and journalists assumed he must have died.

After all, he was 84 and when top leaders leave the picture in one-party states, that's usually the case.

Chinese authorities vigorously denied Jiang was dead. But reports then surfaced that he has been quite ill and the suggestion that he might be at death's door prompted considerable discussion about his legacy and the China he presided over for almost 12 years, particularly in the turbulent1990s.

Jiang presented the smiling, benign face of China in the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, in the process eclipsing the unpopular Li Peng, sometimes referred to as "the butcher of Beijing."

At the same time, Jiang's ambitious economic opening to the outside world, including the warm relationship he developed with Canada's Jean Chrétien, deflected attention away from China's horrible human rights record. So did his gregarious, sometimes comical, personality, and his ability to speak some English with great enthusiasm.

To get a better understanding of his legacy, CBC Producer Jennifer Clibbon interviewed two sinologists with contrasting views of Jiang.

Wenran Jiang is an associate professor of Chinese politics at the University of Alberta who left China in the 1980s.

Victor Zatsepine is a Russian-born Chinese historian who lived in China throughout the 1990s, studying and working there as a journalist. He is currently an assistant professor of history at Hong Kong University.

CBC News: Jiang Zemin came to power after the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989 and rose to become "paramount leader" in the 1990s. What was Jiang's particular stamp on China during this decade?

Victor Zatsepine: In the 1990s, most Western observers downplayed Jiang as a transitional leader, hoping that socialism in China would collapse in a "domino effect" following the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This did not happen.

Victor Zatsepine, a Russian-born Chinese historian at Hong Kong University. ((Courtesy Victory Zatsepine))

Jiang's background as a Soviet-trained engineer and his adoption of Deng Xiaoping's pragmatic thinking made him a supporter of further economic reforms, wrapping them in a formula of "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

During Jiang's leadership, the Chinese economy became more diverse and its markets gradually attracted foreign investment. Thus, the idea of Chinese socialism acquired a new dimension.

The People's Republic of China in the 1990s was a country of mobile phones, joint ventures, Special Economic Zones, Zhang Yimou movies and discos. Politically, the PRC remained a one-party state and Jiang Zemin did not have second thoughts about that.

During his leadership, the PRC survived the Asian financial crisis and saw a smooth return of the British colony of Hong Kong and of Portuguese-controlled Macao.

In foreign policy, Jiang's leadership was associated with establishing good relations with Russia and the normalization of relations with the U.S., despite numerous difficulties. The latter supported the PRC in getting "most favoured nation" trading status.

This peaceful foreign policy can be seen as a legacy of Jiang Zemin.

Wenran Jiang: When Jiang was hand-picked by the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping after the Tiananmen crackdown, Deng was still in charge and making key decisions behind the scenes.

Wenran Jiang, the University of Alberta. ((CBC))

Jiang lacked a power base in Beijing because he was from Shanghai. But Jiang managed to get Deng's trust and gradually built up his political support. So when Deng passed away in 1997, Jiang emerged as a strong leader.

Jiang teamed up with the tough-minded premier Zhu Rongji and steered Chinese economic reform in the direction of openness.

While Jiang and his team should be credited for fostering fast economic growth throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, there were serious negative effects to China's particular development model.

Namely large-scale consumption of energy and resources, damage to the environment, and a widening of income gaps between the cities and the rural areas and between the coastal and inland regions.

Political reform wasn't in the cards because of widespread corruption and the party's refusal to allow challenge to its legitimacy.

CBC News: He was known for his colourful and sometimes flamboyant personality. How was he regarded by the Chinese people at the time?

Victor Zatsepine: Living in Beijing in the 1990s, I met very few people who had strong sentiments, either positive or negative, about Jiang Zemin. No doubt, he was more popular than premier Li Peng.

Young people, especially students, seemed not to care about their state leaders, at least in conversations with foreigners.

Older people, who still had memories of political campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s, were not eager to discuss its leadership or politics. The artists and intellectuals who did not want to conform to state-sponsored culture, used symbolic language to express themselves and their dissent.

Overall, the era of Jiang Zemin can be seen as a time of stability for the society, the government and the Communist Party. The improvement of people's material lives, social mobility, and new economic and business opportunities contributed to the feeling of stability.

Wenran Jiang: Jiang is not as charismatic as Mao or Deng, but he nevertheless has a very showy colourful personality. He was known for singing songs or karaokes; and he demonstrated many times to his foreign guests that he could speak some English, most notably reciting passages of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address.

CBCNews: As a member of China's so called "third generation" of leaders, what were his core beliefs?

Wenran Jiang: Jiang had some experience with Western education and later studied in the Soviet Union, but he is truly a homegrown traditional revolutionary who devoted his life to the Chinese Communist Party from a very young age.

Jiang survived and strived in the Chinese political system over the decades, rising from low-level jobs to being the mayor of Shanghai before Deng promoted him to lead the party.

While Jiang's core beliefs are very similar to that of the older generation of revolutionaries, he was aware that he needed to adapt the party to represent the wider population.

A favourite among Western leaders, Jiang here greets Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, a fellow joker, at the APEC summit in Shanghai in October 2001. ((Reuters))

Thus Jiang formulated his own theories that called for the party to focus on promoting economic development, and move away from the Communist revolutionary ideology, and with a greater emphasis on Chinese traditional culture.

CBCNews: He coined the term socialist market economy. What was the significance of that?

Wenran Jiang: The concept of the socialist market economy was first introduced by Deng Xiaoping in 1979 when China embarked on the road of reform.

Jiang should be credited for moving this principle beyond debates and experiments and implementing it thoroughly during his time in power.

There are still debates and doubts about the function of the market and to what extent it should be regulated in China today, especially given the recent failure of the U.S. and other Western financial systems.

But few would believe that today's China will turn back into the days of the Soviet-style central planning system.

CBCNews: He built strong ties with former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. How did that come about and what did that mean for Canada?

Wenran Jiang: Both Jiang and Chrétien are pragmatists. Chrétien did not pretend that he should go to China to lecture the Chinese on how to run their own country.

He pursued a policy of engagement with the top Chinese leadership, which was focusing on promoting bilateral economic cooperation.

Jiang liked such an approach and their personal chemistry was good.

Canada's relations with China were on solid grounds under both Chrétien and his successor Paul Martin.

The same cannot be said under the Conservative government since 2006.

Prime Minister Harper only began to build a working relationship with President Hu Jintao during the latter's visit to Ottawa last year, and there is much catch-up work to do on Canada-China relations.

CBC News: Some say that his go-go economic policy left China with many of the severe problems it faces today: environmental degradation, the gap between the rich and poor. How would you assess his ultimate legacy?

Wenran Jiang: Many have pointed out Jiang's achievements, such as restoring China from the shadow of the Tiananmen crackdown and overseeing China's fast economic growth.

Others criticized Jiang for not pushing further political reform. These assessments are more or less on the mark.

But most pundits have missed the single most important legacy of Jiang Zemin: he was the first Chinese leader in the history of the PRC to implement an institutionalized transfer of power.

Under Mao Zedong, there were two coup attempts, with Deng Xiaoping emerging victorious after Mao's death in1976.

Jiang himself came to power as the head of the "third generation leadership" after the bloody crackdown at Tiananmen and the dismissal of the Communist Party's former general secretary Zhao Ziyang.

But under Jiang's watch, the transfer of power to Hu Jintao and the "fourth generation leadership" was done peacefully in 2002-03, putting in place a rule that each new leader will serve a maximum of two five-year terms.

If the transition of the current Chinese leadership to a new generation, scheduled for next year, can be achieved smoothly, Jiang should deserve credit for beginning the long journey toward a more accountable political regime in China.