When he was thrust into the limelight as China’s paramount leader in the immediate aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Jiang Zemin was dismissed by many analysts as a likely short-lived transitional leader. At the time of his sudden elevation, despite having been Shanghai’s party secretary and former mayor and having already served as a member of the ruling Politburo for two years, Jiang was a relatively obscure figure, even within China. He had almost no senior political patrons of any import, no real ties to the main party factions, no relations with the military, and no geographic base other than Shanghai. Jiang was personally selected by Deng Xiaoping on the recommendation of other party elders, as he was a good compromise candidate in the aftermath of the purge of party leader Zhao Ziyang and the brutal crackdown at Tiananmen.

Yet Jiang, who died on November 30 at age 96, proved to have remarkable staying power. He remained at the helm for a full 15 years until finally relinquishing his last position, chair of the Central Military Commission, in 2004, having given up the other important positions of general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and president of China in 2002 and 2003, respectively. Even after he was forced to retire, Jiang continued to wield considerable clout behind the scenes for another decade, influencing elite politics and policy through most of the reign of his successor, Hu Jintao.

Fatefully, Jiang also approved the promotion of Xi Jinping to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007, clearing the path for Xi’s rise. Although it cannot be said that Xi was one of Jiang’s protégés, he had been on Jiang’s radar screen at least since the first decade of this century. Jiang and his wife often vacationed in the scenic city of Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province, whose party secretary at the time was Xi. And Jiang had come to tout the “Zhejiang model,” Xi’s approach to private-sector-driven economic development. In his final years, Jiang said nothing publicly about Xi’s role in contemporary Chinese politics. Yet one can only imagine that he watched Xi with discomfort. When it came to both Xi’s policies and his leadership style, China’s current leader has turned out to be the very antithesis of Jiang.


Early on in his tenure, given that he was a largely unknown quantity, Jiang earned the dismissive nickname “the flowerpot”—for being ornamental but serving little practical function. The initial foreign impressions of Jiang were that he was a classic apparatchik, a dull bureaucrat lacking in intelligence and personality. But as time passed and Jiang consolidated power at home and earned respect abroad, it became apparent that he was the very opposite of these descriptors. He displayed a buoyant and lively personality; he was gregarious and even egotistical. He was well educated, too, a cosmopolitan and cultured intellectual with broad knowledge of many fields and foreign cultures. By no means a bureaucratic robot, Jiang had his own informed ideas about policy. He understood the intricacies of scientific and industrial modernization and had mastered the art of forging bureaucratic coalitions and balancing opposing factions. He had a keen sense of the equilibrium between control and toleration in politics, the economy, and society.

Jiang was born into a well-to-do family in Yangzhou, a charming city in central China near the Yangtze River that had a rich cultural and commercial heritage dating back to imperial China. In secondary school, he was exposed to a variety of literatures, philosophies, histories, foreign cultures and languages, sciences, and music. He was an accomplished player of the erhu (an ancient Chinese string instrument) and a proficient pianist. He dabbled in the violin and loved to sing. His repertoire ranged from Elvis Presley love songs to Italian opera. (When the tenor Luciano Pavarotti visited Beijing in 2001, Jiang joined him on stage in singing “O Sole Mio.”)

Jiang’s Yangzhou middle school education was deeply influenced by its Western (mainly American) curriculum. It was then that he began to learn English, mainly by repeating speeches such as the Gettysburg Address, which he would later recite verbatim with pleasure for visiting Americans. Jiang came to refer to this as the “bourgeois” stage of his education. Like many intellectuals during the period of Nationalist rule, Jiang believed that only Western science could modernize China. His generation was deeply influenced by the liberal outlook of the May Fourth Movement of the 1920s, China’s first mass nationalist movement, which also touted science and democracy as the prescription for modernizing China.

Jiang astutely turned his background as a bureaucrat into a political advantage.

Jiang studied electrical engineering at the prestigious National Central University in Nanjing, which merged with Shanghai Jiao Tong University while he was there, and graduated in 1947. All his classes, textbooks, and assignments were taught in English, thus further grounding Jiang in the language, and he supplemented his coursework by reading English literature and watching American films. “I received a lot of education in capitalism and Western culture,” he later reflected. Jiang’s English was by no means fluent, but it was good enough to carry on rudimentary conversations throughout his life. Surprisingly, his American educational background did not cost him politically during Mao Zedong’s many anti-American and anti-intellectual campaigns. A key factor protecting him was that his uncle, who raised Jiang, was a Communist Party martyr. Moreover, Jiang himself had embraced the communist cause early, becoming a pro-communist activist during his university days and joining the party in 1946.

After the establishment of the new communist state, Jiang began his long career in China’s heavy industrial sector—being assigned in rapid succession to main industrial planning body in Shanghai, then to the First Ministry of Machine Building in Beijing, and then to the gargantuan Changchun Auto Works in northeastern Jilin Province. In 1955, Jiang traveled to the Soviet Union as one of 700 Chinese sent for training in the Soviet system of heavy industry. He spent two years at the Stalin Auto Works outside Moscow, seeing up close how mass production lines operated and how the state-planned economy worked. He also learned to speak fluent Russian and read Russian literature, and he reveled in singing Russian songs at vodka-fueled drinking sessions with Soviet experts. Jiang personified the period of Sino-Soviet solidarity.

After returning to China, Jiang was reassigned to the sprawling Changchun vehicle production complex. Thus began three decades of working his way up through China’s industrial planning apparatus. Jiang specialized in electronics and served in the country’s machine-building ministries, which were the heart of its military-industrial complex. Like most other cadres, Jiang was sent to a so-called May Seventh Cadre School for two years of manual labor during the Cultural Revolution, but in 1971, he was fortuitously sent abroad to serve as an industrial liaison officer in China’s embassy in Romania.

Throughout, Jiang’s career was in industrial economics, not politics. It was only in the mid-1980s that he held his first administrative position in the party, serving as a party secretary in the Ministry of Electronics in 1984. From there, he was appointed mayor of Shanghai in 1985 and then party secretary of that city two years later. Jiang adroitly managed to disperse the large-scale protests of May 1989, which had spread from Beijing to Shanghai and dozens of other cities across China, and he closed down the liberal World Economic Herald. These acts brought him to the attention of Deng and other senior leaders in Beijing, who were then wrestling with how to end the massive protests in Tiananmen Square. Following the recommendations of party elders, Deng decided that Jiang was the right man to replace Zhao, the disgraced reformist leader who was purged on the eve of the Tiananmen Square massacre.


During his early years in office, Jiang ruled in Deng’s shadow, even though Deng had relinquished his formal authority. But Jiang gradually began to exercise his own agency, build a power base, and shape policy. It was a surprising development to those who had written Jiang off as a weak and unimaginative creature of the bureaucracy.

How did Jiang end up becoming China’s longest-serving leader since Mao? He astutely turned his background as a bureaucrat into a political advantage. China may be a one-party dictatorship, but it still has different constituencies—geographic, factional, institutional, patronage based, and bureaucratic. Jiang overcame his initial weaknesses by cultivating various interest groups in the party, government, military, and internal security services bureaucracies. In each case, he adopted their respective institutional preferences and made them his own—effectively co-opting them. He then showered them with resources and promoted their upper ranks.

The secret to success in any political system is to get constituents to believe that you understand their needs, share their priorities, and will advocate for them—and then to shower them with resources. In this sense, it can be said that Jiang was China’s first real politician, as distinct from the Leninist apparatchiks who only implement instructions and policies from above. It was this quality that Jiang drew on to overcome a nonexistent relationship with the People’s Liberation Army, for example. During his first year in office, Jiang visited every one of China’s seven military regions and all four of the PLA’s general departments—telling the brass what they wanted to hear, promoting their officers, and lavishing the military with increased budgets and resources. It was an astute strategy, and it allowed Jiang to not only remain in power but also accomplish a great deal.

During his tenure, Jiang racked up a number of notable successes: overcoming the international condemnation and isolation following the Tiananmen Square massacre, broadening China’s foreign relations, presiding over the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, restoring the country’s political stability, overseeing the longest stretch of sustained high-level economic growth rates in the country’s history, raising living standards, setting the PLA on the path to modernization, and restarting a series of stealthy but significant political reforms (including the “Three Represents,” an initiative to recruit China’s corporate elite and business entrepreneurs into the party). Beginning in 1992, Jiang was the first to encourage China’s state-owned enterprises to “go out” into the world. He coined the concept “socialist market economy” the same year, and in 2000, he launched the “Develop the West” initiative (a plan to economically develop the country’s isolated western provinces of Tibet, Gansu, Qinghai, and Xinjiang). He also took a keen interest in technology and innovation, launching the “Thousand Talents Program” in 2008 to attract overseas know-how to China.


Jiang clearly enjoyed foreign policy, and he invested his time and energy in it. He took particular delight in bilateral exchanges with visiting foreign leaders, during which his extroverted persona was often on display before the cameras. He reveled in hobnobbing and taking photos with other world leaders at multilateral forums. Jiang often went off message on such occasions, ignoring official talking points and speaking extemporaneously—after which his aides would often slip a version of the prepared text to their foreign interlocutors so as to set the record straight. Jiang, who cackled when he laughed, was unusually gregarious for a Chinese leader, most of whom are tightly scripted. He also had an unfortunate penchant for combing his hair in public.

One of Jiang’s signature foreign policy accomplishments was to repair ties with Washington following China’s post-Tiananmen isolation. In 1996 and 1997, he and U.S. President Bill Clinton exchanged successful state visits. Jiang’s other big success concerned relations with Moscow. It was early in his term, in 1991, that the Soviet Union imploded. The event traumatized the Chinese Communist Party, especially since it came in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests and fall of communist states in eastern Europe. Jiang quickly traded state visits with Russia’s new president, Boris Yeltsin, and initiated a sweeping series of bilateral agreements with Moscow between 1992 and 1997. The fluency in Russian and familiarity with Russians that he acquired in the 1950s served him well.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, Jiang oversaw a systematic analysis of the causes of Soviet collapse and lessons to be drawn for China. Overseen by Jiang’s right-hand man, Zeng Qinghong, this painstaking research project resulted not in a consensus but in two diametrically opposed views of what went wrong in the Soviet Union—and therefore what path China should follow. One school of thought held that the Soviet Union’s final leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was entirely at fault for the collapse of the system, and that the Soviet Communist Party should never have moved to liberalize the system and society and separate the party from the armed forces. China, this conservative camp concluded, had to resist the urge to reform and instead tighten up the existing system. The other school of thought had a very different take: that the Soviet Union collapsed because of decades of institutional sclerosis that had begun under Stalin, and that the problem was not that Gorbachev had undertaken reforms but that they had come so late that the system couldn’t absorb them. If the Chinese Communist Party was to avoid the same fate, the more liberal school concluded, China’s political, economic, and social systems had to reform and open up in a carefully managed way.

Viewed after a decade of Xi’s dictatorial rule, the Jiang era looks remarkably open.

It was this second view that Jiang himself subscribed to and that ultimately prevailed during his time in power. Thus the party undertook a wide variety of institutional reforms. It became more responsive to public opinion, loosened its control over civil society, tolerated a relatively open media and intellectual freedoms, permitted feedback mechanisms within the party, and became more transparent in the making of government policies.

Despite these reforms, Jiang’s domestic record was far from an unalloyed triumph. True, he well outperformed the original expectations for his rule and left a legacy of impressive transformation in everything from the military to higher education to rural industry. Yet it was also on his watch that social inequalities deepened, with the country’s Gini coefficient rising from .35 when Jiang took over in 1989 to .45 in 2002 when he stepped down from his position as party leader. Corruption proliferated, and crime increased markedly. Jiang also had his repressive side. It became particularly apparent in a series of campaigns, carried out under the slogan “strike hard,” against a range of crimes throughout the 1990s. Amnesty International documented almost 20,000 executions during the decade. Jiang is even more closely associated with the crackdown on Falun Gong practitioners—a quasi-religious spiritual movement that emphasizes meditation and breathing exercises. He also launched a far-reaching campaign to indoctrinate China’s youth through the Patriotic Education Campaign.

On balance, however, Jiang’s rule was very successful. He turned out to be no flowerpot. Viewed in retrospect, after a decade of Xi’s dictatorial rule, the Jiang era looks remarkably open and China’s global reputation far more positive. Outsiders don’t know what Jiang really thought about Xi and his rule, although rumors circulated near the end of his life that he was not at all pleased. The few times that the retired Jiang appeared alongside Xi on official occasions, there was no apparent warmth between the two leaders. After all, they had diametrically opposed understandings of the Soviet Union’s demise and the lessons to be drawn for China and the party. The two leaders’ differing styles of rule lie in their diametrically opposed understanding of the causes of Soviet collapse. Both set out to strengthen the Communist Party and avoid a Soviet-style implosion—but Jiang sought a far more open and flexible party, while Xi has made it into a robotic machine under one-man dictatorship.

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  • DAVID SHAMBAUGH Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science, and International Affairs at George Washington University and Director of the university’s China Policy Program. He is the author of China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now, from which portions of this article are adapted.
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