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Shrewd guardian of the Deng legacy

Jiang Zemin has emerged as China's principal leader. He is president, the head of the military and general secretary of the Communist Party.  

Jiang Zemin (1926- )

"We will work to establish a fairly ideal socialist market economy."

(CNN) -- With his thick glasses and bland demeanor, Jiang Zemin seems at first glance a dull bureaucrat. Behind the scenes, however, he is a shrewd survivor, a veteran of the epic leadership battles in the Chinese Communist Party and an economic reformer intent on shaking up China's massive state-run industries.

Jiang grew up under Japanese occupation in Yangzhou city northwest of Shanghai. The war with the Japanese had a profound effect on his life. When an uncle, a Communist partisan, was killed in combat, Jiang's father gave his son to the uncle's family so they would have a male heir. Jiang's status as the adopted son of a revolutionary martyr would open doors for him throughout his career.

As a young man, Jiang worked as an engineer and did a brief stint at a Soviet automobile plant in the 1950s. He was later tapped for government service and rose steadily through the bureaucratic ranks, advancing through a series of ministerial posts before being named mayor of Shanghai in 1985.

Jiang received mixed reviews as mayor. Critics dismissed him as a "flower vase," a Chinese term for a decorative but useless person. Others lauded him for transforming Shanghai into a cosmopolitan city and luring a steady stream of venture capital from Hong Kong, Japan and the West.

Willing to debate human rights

Jiang was made a full member of the Politburo in 1987, and two years later he won the favor of China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, by supporting the suppression of the student-led pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square.


In the reshuffle that followed the crackdown, Jiang took on the titles of general secretary of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission and, later, president of the People's Republic of China. He assumed many of the daily operations of government during the years of Deng's declining health, and later emerged at the center of the so-called "collective leadership" that rose to prominence after Deng's death in 1997.

In the years since Tiananmen, Jiang has combined a steadfast defense of the government's actions with a willingness to engage with the West in the debate over human rights.

In June 1998 he took the unprecedented step of holding a live televised debate with U.S. President Bill Clinton in Beijing.

Jiang listened intently to Clinton's sometimes biting criticism of China's treatment of dissidents and minorities. When it was his turn to speak, Jiang fired back that China's response to the Tiananmen protests was justified.

"Had the Chinese government not taken the resolute measures, then we could not have enjoyed the stability that we are enjoying today," he said.

'I wish you good trading'

Jiang's high-level exchanges with U.S. officials have given him a chance to shine on the international stage and indulge his interest in American culture and technology.

During a visit to the United States in 1997, Jiang gave a speech at Harvard University, played host at a banquet for corporate executives and even rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, calling out, "Good morning. I wish you good trading!" to the teeming hordes on the stock market floor.

Jiang and Yeltsin
Jiang hugs Russian President Boris Yeltsin during a Beijing visit in 1997  

He quoted sections of the Gettysburg Address during a tour of the White House and revealed to Clinton that he knew all the dialogue from the John Wayne movie, "Stagecoach" (Jiang's English teacher used the script as a teaching tool).

Jiang has always been keen to modernize the Chinese economy. At the 15th Communist Party Congress in September 1997 he unveiled a sweeping plan to privatize China's massive and unprofitable state-owned enterprises. Though the plan was cloaked in revolutionary language, its underlying intent was clear: to open Chinese markets to more international investment.

"Between now and the end of the first decade of the next century," he said during his U.S. visit the next month, "we will work to establish a fairly ideal socialist market economy."

Jiang has faced periodic challenges to his leadership within the Communist Party. Each time the wily septuagenarian has managed to outmaneuver his rivals. He had the powerful former mayor of Beijing expelled for corruption in 1995, and two years later engineered the early retirement of two generals and the head of the National People's Congress.

He shows every sign of carrying on the legacy of his mentor, Deng, pursuing a vigorous program of market reforms and keeping a lid on political pluralism and internal dissent.

Profile: Lin Biao »

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