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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

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

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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Profiling a risk-allergic Jiang presidency

By Tim Healy

CAN WE GLEAN ANY insight into China's future by understanding more about its president, Jiang Zemin? The leader's personal foibles and his concern about his place in history are not just aspects of his psyche but may also hold clues to policy directions: Faced with, say, an ascendant Japan, how would Jiang's personality influence the government's response? How might he employ the political tools that enabled him to rise from a little-known big-city mayor to the unrivaled leader of the world's biggest country within one decade?

Willy Wo-lap Lam, China editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, set out to find those insights in The Era of Jiang Zemin (Prentice Hall, Singapore, 452 pages, $22). He tallies Jiang's strengths and weaknesses to divine the path China is likely to take. It proves impossible to reach a conclusion. But that isn't for want of information: Lam is one of the most plugged-in observers of Chinese politics in the world.

The problem is Jiang: Not only is he short of vision, he lacks strength in his own (conservative) convictions. He came to national prominence in 1989 in the wake of the Tiananmen crackdown. Since then, China has notched up a few successes, including raising agricultural production, which some commentators attribute at least partly to the president. Not Lam, who discounts Jiang's contributions to most developments.

Take the economy. Following a post-Tiananmen chill, China became dangerously overheated in the mid-1990s: Deng Xiaoping's call for renewed commitment to reform during his 1992 tour of southern China fired up more than he bargained for. The critical job of curbing the runaway economy went to Premier Zhu Rongji. Jiang was particularly keen to crown him economic czar, Lam writes. Above all, Zhu would be "a scapegoat for any major mishaps in the finance, industry or agricultural sectors." So far, he has managed to avoid that fate: Zhu brought inflation down from more than 25%, though he may yet stumble if deflation gets worse.

The 72-year-old Jiang touts Hong Kong's handover as a high point of his career. But even there, most of the credit goes to Deng, who masterminded China's pact with Britain in 1984. In an interview, the author does, however, credit Jiang with stabilizing China following the tumultuous protests of 1989. He successfully guided the Communist Party through the aftermath - a time when many foreign observers suggested the divided party might crumble and lose its grip on power within a few years.

Overall, Jiang does not come off well. "He's quite insecure," says Lam of the president. "So he takes every opportunity to show off. It is counterproductive sometimes. For instance, he likes to brag about knowing five foreign languages, but his ability is really quite poor." Readers may recall a telling image published in newspapers around the world: Jiang preening in front of a mirror before a meeting with Spanish monarch Juan Carlos in Madrid in 1996. "Jiang was obsessed with appearances," writes Lam. "He liked to project a self-confidence that was close to cockiness."

Lam paints a picture of the Chinese president as a politician almost completely afraid to take risks. Often, this yielded initiatives that he seemed to backpedal almost as soon as they were announced. For instance, Jiang has long emphasized the importance of developing science and technology to propel China's progress and modernization. Yet his government maintains a tight rein on the flow of information, and has tried hard to control access to the Internet.

At Deng's funeral in 1997, Jiang caught world attention by suggesting that China might be ready for some political liberalization. A year later, little had been accomplished. Democratic elections, a reform Deng instituted at the village level during the mid-1980s, was extended to one town in April. As chairman of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's legislature, Qiao Shi had made a considerable effort to promote the rule of law. It is a fundamental concept that would help modernize Chinese society. The problem, of course, is that it might weaken the grip of the Party - a danger Jiang would not countenance. Ultimately, he forced Qiao to retire from the NPC, replacing him with ally Li Peng.

What of his vaunted drive against corruption? All that provided, Lam argues, was an opportunity for Jiang to oust political enemies such as now-disgraced Beijing mayor Chen Xitong. Jiang has never been willing to allow an independent body to investigate graft in the Party. At one point, he thought to stake the legacy of his leadership on progress toward reunification with Taiwan. But as that becomes increasingly unlikely, he has turned his attention to other directions. Jiang gets marks for recruiting a group of young thinkers to come up with ideas about where he can leave his mark. Not that he is likely to accept any ideas that seem in the least radical. "He is too conservative and allergic to risk to take any chances," says Lam.

The author sums up his subject with a backhanded compliment: "Jiang has successfully consolidated his power so that he has no rivals. But then he hasn't used that power to accomplish anything significant." The Chinese president may yet confound his critics in the coming years. But Lam isn't optimistic: "[There is] a less than 50% chance that he would surprise me."

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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