The Beijing massacre of June 1989 was never necessary to clear Tiananmen Square. Thanks to bitter infighting and a lack of clear purpose in the student movement, the million protesters who gathered in mid-May had already shrunk to a few thousand stragglers by the time of the shooting. They could easily have been dispersed by riot police or tear gas. But the massive show of military might was not aimed only at the students. It was also the conclusion of a hidden drama inside China's top ranks, where an intense power struggle had paralyzed the leadership for weeks (the main reason the protest was able to grow so large in the first place). Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had only just succeeded in purging his anointed successor, Zhao Ziyang, and the show of force was meant to seal the gaping rift in the party. But the bloodshed only tore open new holes, since the needless brutality forced many party members to question the viability of their organization.

When leaders convened three weeks later to announce the new party chief, an unlikely candidate from Shanghai named Jiang Zemin, many assumed he had little chance of surviving such a tumultuous time. Jiang's initial speeches, lifeless and obviously scripted by committee, only reinforced this impression. As 1989 came to a close and communist governments in Europe fell like dominoes, China's leadership -- suffering from a badly outdated ideology, endemic corruption, and a devastating loss of legitimacy after the massacre -- seemed poised to follow.

Since 1989, however, both Jiang and his party have defied all expectations. Not only is Jiang still at the helm and stronger than ever, having won the added title of president in 1993, but the party has also remained firmly in control, without ever changing its intensely secretive and outdated mode of governing. Virtually no moves have been made to dilute its autocratic powers; party leaders still reach decisions in private, without more than a cursory pause to consider public opinion.

Remarkably, this ability to resist change has persisted through years of spectacular economic growth and deep social change. The transformation has been overwhelming: China at the close of the twentieth century barely resembles the country a decade earlier. Ordinary citizens have gained a measure of personal freedom -- the ability to choose where they work and live, how they get information, and how they spend money -- that was unimaginable in 1989.

Even more remarkable, perhaps, is the way that Jiang and his colleagues managed the seamless transition of power from the octogenarians who preceded them and presided over the massacre. Even before the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997, a new generation of 60-somethings had already started giving, not following, orders. And they made the change without betraying any sign of inner turmoil.

Exactly how Jiang pulled off this impressive political feat remains largely secret. In fact, the decision-making methods of China's leaders remain unknown outside the walls of Zhongnanhai, the sprawling estate that is China's contemporary Forbidden City and sits next door to the original.

The Communist Party's Central Committee convenes twice a year, issuing pronouncements so turgid that they are nearly incomprehensible. Real decisions are made in the frequent and informal meetings of xiao zu (small groups) of China's top leaders and later given a seal of official approval at formal Politburo gatherings. The code of loyalty and secrecy kept by the leaders and their staffs is so strong that only a handful of people know how and when the real meetings are held. Outsiders may make much of the role of factions in the leadership, but can only guess at exactly who is in what clique. Chinese leaders -- Jiang included -- are so intent on preserving the appearance of consensus that their personal opinions, biases, and preferences remain well hidden.

Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, for instance, is widely regarded as a liberal due to his open and direct way of talking and his bold declarations. His predecessor, Li Peng, an inept and painfully cautious public speaker, is believed to be more conservative. But how much do the two men actually differ on specific issues, like central versus regional control or fiscal policy? Few know, since their public stances -- in line with carefully worked-out party positions -- are virtually identical.

The political gossip that seeps from the network of political cognoscenti in Beijing is so scarce that observers must inevitably rely on second-, third-, and fourth-hand accounts. By its very nature, such information is highly unreliable, containing perhaps a sliver of truth wrapped in layers of misinformation and misunderstanding.

Historians, political scientists, and journalists hungry for reliable information about Chinese politics have to rely on official publications, and on the semiofficial and nonofficial accounts that bubble up in Hong Kong. These are the same methods of tracking and analyzing China's political movements that outsiders have used for decades.

It is in this Byzantine context that Bruce Gilley has written Tiger on the Brink, a biography of Jiang Zemin and a highly readable account of modern Chinese politics. Unfortunately, Gilley is sharply limited by the same lack of access as every other student of Zhongnanhai. A correspondent for The Far Eastern Economic Review who covered China out of Hong Kong, Gilley has done an admirable job of scouring Chinese-language publications for tidbits about Jiang's personal background. But hamstrung by lack of information, this story of Jiang's decade at the top of China's Communist Party only partly satisfies.

Tiger on the Brink is essentially a first-rate clip job. Gilley, facing the rigid limits of a culture of political secrecy, has had to rely overwhelmingly on secondary sources; as he relates in the preface, the closest he ever got to his subject was when he ran into the portly president in the men's room at the Great Hall of the People. And Jiang left the restroom before a surprised Gilley could think of a question to ask.

TIGER BALM

The big cat in the book's title apparently refers to China, not Jiang, for it is unlikely that anyone would ever mistake the genial and cautious leader portrayed by Gilley for such a ferocious creature. Gilley reinforces the assessment of Jiang as a politically slippery but tenacious survivor, less tiger than "Mr. Tiger Balm," a moniker he once gave himself, which Gilley uses to head a chapter.

Jiang Zemin emerges from this book as a skilled political tactician, who distinguished himself over nearly 50 years of Communist Party politics not as an intellectual or a fighter but by his ability to get along with superiors and inferiors alike, and by making use of an unsurpassed knack for currying favor with influential men.

It is tempting to assume that the world's most populous country will produce a leader with a character of similar magnitude. Yet Jiang tends to make a mild impression on those he meets. Observers hoping to find him a liberal have been disappointed; yet so have been those who expected a reactionary or an ogre. If Jiang has any strong political views or vision, they remain well hidden.

While Mao has been enshrined as the helmsman of the revolution, Deng is known as the architect of reform. Jiang, it is thought, would like to be remembered as the grand engineer, the man who kept the machine called China running. That may seem a modest goal compared with those of his predecessors. But Jiang is a modest man, with much, as Churchill might have said, to be modest about.

Jiang's leadership style -- indecisive, replete with contradictions and mostly concerned about muddling through -- reflects an uncertain time for Chinese Communists. While the nation executes a stunning shift from a planned to a market economy, Jiang and his colleagues continue to mouth meaningless shibboleths about the ongoing, dominant role of the socialist state. As corruption grows worse, Jiang announces one toothless, anti-graft crackdown after another.

Jiang likes to present himself as a highly educated idealist in touch with the common man. Gilley shows him instead as an accomplished, calculating performer who has mastered the political routines of Communist Party politics. Where Mao and Deng each possessed a charisma that grew out of deeply held political convictions, Jiang, as Gilley describes him, does not stand for anything. It is hard to imagine a man or woman on the streets of Beijing able to think of a single principle that Jiang represents -- apart from holding on to power.

According to Gilley, Jiang once implied that he is "not a dictator" to a surprised group of American academics. Describing the checks placed on his personal power by the consensus-oriented philosophy of China's leadership, Jiang modestly insisted that his authority was limited: "By the time you leave this room," he told his American visitors, "not one of you will say to yourselves, 'That Jiang fellow is a real dictator.'"

As Gilley aptly observes, Jiang's true audience for this speech was probably members of the Politburo, whom he hoped to placate with assurances that they were equals. While consensus may sound like an enlightened leadership style to outsiders, in China it comes only after endless back-biting, meddling, and negotiating between top leaders and their staffs. Unfortunately, Gilley can only hint at such antics; the details remain beyond his reach, lost behind the omerta of Communist Party politics.

While the particulars may be obscure, the effect of Chinese "consensus" is evident at many meetings held with foreigners, in which officials seem unable to speak freely and are restricted to repeating Communist Party lines, all of which have presumably been worked out in advance. Gilley illustrates the point with a humorous anecdote: Jiang's first meeting with President Clinton in 1993 was so badly hemmed in by the official script that it reduced the meeting to farce. After shaking hands, Jiang took out a prepared statement criticizing the United States for butting into China's internal affairs over human rights and read it aloud, word for word. After 20 interminable minutes, an exasperated Clinton interrupted to suggest that he and Jiang should talk to each other, not lecture. Jiang looked up, but did not stop reading. After another 10 minutes, Clinton joked aloud to one of his aides that he "should have brought my saxophone along to get some practice in."

Jiang's interpreter misinterpreted: "Mr. Clinton says he would like to play his saxophone for you."

"Jiang's eyes lit up with glee," Gilley writes. "'Really?' he asked, finally putting down his speech. 'That's great. I play the erhu. I should invite you to my home in Beijing and you could play your saxophone while I play my erhu!'"

One might be tempted to put the exchange down to linguistic or cultural misunderstanding. But the episode reveals how, even after four years at the helm, Jiang still did not feel he had the authority to speak for himself.

THE DICTATOR VANISHES

Not only is the character of Jiang the leader opaque; his life story, as Gilley tells it, is not particularly riveting, either. If there are any political skeletons moldering in his closet, Gilley was unable to find them. Jiang's early years in Jiangsu Province, not far from Shanghai, and his training as an engineer make an unremarkable story, as does his plodding rise through a series of middling assignments at the China Soap Factory in Shanghai, the First Machine-Building Ministry in Beijing, and the First Auto Works in Changchun.

Though well liked and competent, as a bureaucrat Jiang exhibited little that hinted at his bright future. His real skill always lay in finding and nurturing relationships with the political patrons who would later be key to his advance. In Beijing, for example, he befriended Wang Daohan, later mayor of Shanghai, who was to be instrumental in getting Jiang his post as electronics minister in 1983 and as mayor of Shanghai in 1985.

It was in Shanghai that Jiang could make full use of his talents, wooing several of China's elder leaders, including Li Xiannian, Chen Yun, and, most critically, Deng Xiaoping, who apparently liked the special care lavished on them by Jiang during their visits to his city.

And yet, apart from this routine history, the key questions about Jiang's career -- how he rose from the ashes of Tiananmen as the Communist Party's leader, how he iced his main political rivals in 1992 and 1997, and how he eventually usurped Deng's mantle as China's supreme leader -- remain, frustratingly, unanswered by Gilley. Were Chinese politics not so secretive, a biographer would never be excused for failing to illustrate Jiang's transformation from Deng's yes man to his successor. It was a subtle and painstaking process that probably involved a long series of tactical moves. Yet Gilley relates few of them, since he knows almost as little about them as we do.

The biggest challenge to Jiang's rule as Deng's successor came from the Yang brothers: former president Yang Shangkun and his half-brother, General Yang Baibing. In 1992, Jiang succeeded in outfoxing them both. But Gilley devotes a scant few paragraphs to this complex power play. Again, what is troubling here is not that the author downplays the importance of Jiang's victory over his rivals, but that, bereft as his account is of relevant information, it cannot explain how it all actually happened or what it means.

Gilley provides a more thorough analysis of Jiang's ouster of Chen Xitong, the Beijing party chief who was toppled in a 1995 scandal. That year, the suicide of Wang Baosen, a deputy mayor of Beijing, exposed a web of financial misdealings, secret mistresses, and secluded villas that eventually led to Chen's jailing. Here Gilley has more to work with, since China's official media published a big chunk of the case, full of lurid details. However, no one outside Beijing's inner sanctum knows why, in a nation where court verdicts are often handed down instantly, it took three years to bring Chen to trial. Gilley suggests that the lag reflected Jiang's maturing confidence, but this seems less likely than the possibility that it took Jiang that long to cope with the political ramifications of the purge of such a formidable rival.

Gilley may be obliged to rely heavily on secondhand accounts of Chinese politics, but his approach has major drawbacks. He mixes straightforward, largely reliable versions of events recounted by Xinhua (China's official news agency) with less-trustworthy material culled from gossipy Hong Kong magazines like Zheng Ming. One footnote tantalizingly refers to an unnamed official in Jiang's Beijing office, yet this mysterious person -- potentially a font of valuable knowledge about Zhongnanhai -- never fully materializes, vanishing no doubt behind the impenetrable veil of official Beijing secrecy.

Gilley's reliance on official and semi-official publications also means that he gives too much credence to the official interpretation of events. For example, he refers several times to Deng Xiaoping's "genuine wish" to retire, which was always the party line. Yet Deng's 15 years at China's tiller were marked by his tendency to pit his colleagues against each other, thereby ensuring that they would continue to consult the patriarch on all important decisions. Contrary to the official version, actual evidence suggests that Deng never intended to give this up, until advancing Parkinson's disease finally forced him to do so in 1994.

Similarly, describing the moment when Jiang was offered the post of party general secretary in 1989, Gilley takes at face value Jiang's modest protests that he was unqualified and unsure he wanted the job. It is hard to imagine anyone who succeeded in scratching his way to the top of Chinese politics actually hesitating when offered the prize. Playing hard-to-get is a common political ploy, and it apparently continues to sucker journalists all over the world.

Regarding Tiananmen, Gilley offers a fascinating, if incomplete, portrait of Jiang's role. Though still nominally party chief in Shanghai at the time of the massacre, Jiang had already been called to Beijing and pegged as the next head of the Communist Party. But as the fatal moment approached, in the first days of June 1989, Jiang found himself with no actual authority and no way to contact Deng Xiaoping or other leaders. Instead of acting to prevent the coming bloodshed, he sat in a guest house inside Zhongnanhai, telephoning friends and associates in Shanghai, unable even to tell them of his impending ascension. When the decision was made to send tanks rolling down the Avenue of Eternal Peace and to order the People's Liberation Army to open fire on unarmed citizens, Jiang was entirely out of the loop. Gilley's account rings true; rather than an ex post facto attempt to distance Jiang from the killings, it seems a genuine reflection of his impotence at the time.

As for what Jiang actually thought at the moment of the military action -- a fateful decision that would haunt the Communist Party for years, if not decades -- there is no official record. Nor does Gilley provide one. As with so much in Chinese politics, we can only guess.

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