In China's Own Eyes

There are several ways to read The Man Who Changed China, an officially sanctioned portrait of Jiang Zemin, China's recently retired top leader, written by the American investment banker Robert Lawrence Kuhn. Indeed, the biggest challenge of this book is figuring out exactly how to approach it.

The most obvious way is as a biography. But although the book gives a detailed account of Jiang's public life, it fails to provide deeper insights into his personality. Instead, it recycles commonly known information: that Jiang is a social conservative, that he is a political reformist, and that he likes science and engineering. The wooden narrative gets nowhere near the aims of true biography.

One might also approach The Man Who Changed China as history. But the book's main claim -- that Jiang is responsible for China's remarkable transition from disintegrating underachiever in 1989 to emerging superpower today -- is not substantiated. Kuhn does not define how China has changed since 1989; he makes no attempt to refute alternative explanations for China's boom, such as the role of structural forces or of über-reformer Deng Xiaoping; and he provides only smatterings of inside evidence to show how Jiang's actions led to particular outcomes. The claim that Jiang changed China is plausible. But it is not one that this book proves.

Alternatively, one might read this book for the occasional behind-the-scenes look at Chinese politics. When Jiang was elevated to the weakened position of party chief in 1989, his sister recalls, "We certainly didn't celebrate. His appointment wasn't worth celebrating." His chief mentor, Wang Daohan, warns of the "many complications and contradictions" of politics in Beijing, "especially all the subtle conflicts between different interest groups." And the book fascinatingly describes several personal telephone calls Jiang was forced to make to obtain political information or order policy changes. Still, although Sinologists will hold these gems in trembling hands, for the lay reader they are hardly worth hundreds of pages of agitprop.

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