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.

There is, however, one way to approach this book profitably: as an autobiography. The Man Who Changed China is valuable because it provides insight into both how Jiang sees himself and how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sees itself. It is, in other words, a text that reflects the preoccupations and worldview of its subject. Beginning in 2001, a secret state propaganda team oversaw the writing of the book. Ten percent of the English version was censored for the Chinese edition, but 90 percent remained the same: the book's main intended market was China itself (where it appeared simultaneously in Chinese and quickly sold a million copies). This is the image that Jiang and China's new leaders want their people to see. How then do they style themselves, and what does this mean for China's future?


To write his biography, Mao Zedong chose Edgar Snow, a member of the U.S. Communist Party; Jiang chose Kuhn, a member of the U.S. business elite. An investment banker with a zeal for science, high culture, and business, Kuhn personifies the new ideology that has swept through China since 1989. China's state propaganda team even chose to leave the name of Kuhn's Chinese collaborator out of the book to emphasize the American financier's authorship. Nothing better symbolizes Jiang and his cohort's transition to a right-wing developmental dictatorship; every year, they carefully chip away at their socialist heritage.

Accordingly, the book focuses on Jiang's pragmatism and his reluctance to take part in Mao's political campaigns. This, however, is nonsense. Jiang was an avid participant in the anti-rightist purges of the 1950s (as was Deng), and he rode out the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution by cheering on the Red Guards (as did China's current leader, Hu Jintao). But credibility in China today depends on distancing oneself from that radical leftist era, so Jiang and other present-day Chinese leaders burnish their connections to the pre-1949 CCP, which enjoys great prestige as an upright, anti-imperialist brigade. Again, in Jiang's case, this portrayal is largely inaccurate. The book repeats two "facts" that have been seriously questioned by independent researchers in China: first, that Jiang was adopted by the widow of his uncle, a Communist martyr, in 1939 (Jiang seems to have arranged this adoption retroactively after the Communists won the civil war in 1949); and, second, that he joined the underground CCP in 1946 (he probably did not join until after 1949, prior to which he was not a party activist but a general student activist).

Nonetheless, the vision is clear. What was once a utopian party seeking to change the pre-1949 past is today a practical party seeking continuity with it. Today's CCP portrays itself as the inheritor of the remarkable long-term capitalist boom that was initiated with the start of China's republican period in 1912 (and almost ruined by the party's 1956-76 flirtation with Stalinism). Beijing's historic 2005 reconciliation with Taiwan's Kuomintang Party, which authored that boom, had far more symbolism on the mainland than across the strait. Kuhn's dry descriptions of Jiang's year-to-year activities repeatedly feature watchwords such as "science," "consensus," "pragmatism," and "revitalization" -- this is a China picking up the pieces from the Qing dynasty, not smashing them again.

Eager to maintain their pragmatic façade, China's leaders now typically deny that they ever engage in politics. Reading between the lines in The Man Who Changed China, however, proves otherwise. The book directs some barbs at former premier Zhu Rongji -- "unpredictability, occasional impetuousness, and inexhaustible capacity to rub people the wrong way" -- and only faintly praises Hu. Yet every time he purges an opponent or elevates an acolyte, Jiang depicts himself as acting solely in the national interest. The book argues, for example, that Jiang deserves credit for his peaceful handover of power to Hu during 2002-4, the first time that the party changed leadership without purges or bloodshed. But at the same time, the book endorses accounts of the succession published in the West by party insiders suggesting that Jiang did everything in his power to disrupt the process. Indeed, Kuhn shows that Jiang worked meticulously to ensure that the transition favored him in all respects, never considering his tactics a hindrance to Hu, much less unseemly "politics." In Kuhn's rendering, Jiang tarries in handing over his military post because Hu is inexperienced; he purges Li Ruihuan, a liberal member of the Politburo Standing Committee, to avoid policy shifts; and so on.

The gap between self-perception and reality is clearest in Jiang's dealings with Taiwan. Jiang views himself as a dove, even though he oversaw a massive military buildup against the island. The book's key example of Jiang's supposed peace-loving nature is his reaction to President Bill Clinton's 1995 decision to grant a travel visa to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, despite telling Jiang he would not. "Even the president of a great, powerful nation can tell a lie in your presence," Jiang reportedly tells Chinese diplomats. "The United States will have to pay a price." Deng, dying, directs Jiang to handle the matter "rationally," but also not to let Taiwan "run away." Jiang responds by "test" launching two sets of missiles into the seas off Taiwan in late 1995 and early 1996, drawing in a U.S. battle fleet -- and bringing China and the United States the closest they have come to war over the issue. Yet Chinese hard-liners consider Jiang's actions a sign of weakness: a military officer pledges to "rebuild Taiwan from scratch," and two well-known party "liberals," Qiao Shi and Li Ruihuan, mock Jiang for his "soft line." Within the hall of mirrors of party politics, Jiang's actions toward Taiwan appear restrained, even conciliatory.

Another discrepancy between the outside account and the view from within CCP headquarters concerns China's relations with North Korea. Kuhn portrays Beijing's tepid support for Pyongyang as due to structural more than historical or personal reasons. Although domestic credibility is indeed at stake -- "decades of Chinese propaganda [have] promoted the North Korean cause" -- the structural fear is that a weakened North Korea would collapse or go fully nuclear, and either outcome would threaten China. Knowing that China is caught in a bind, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il regularly extorts aid. Kuhn quotes an unnamed insider as saying that Jiang's attempts to push Pyongyang usually backfired: "If Jiang called [Kim], he might hang up." Beijing thinks it is getting no credit for attempting to defuse such a difficult situation. Outside observers might blame it for creating the problem in the first place -- China, after all, encouraged the war that divided the peninsula. But Beijing sees itself as a victim of this crisis, not its author.

The development of closer, more equal relations between China and the United States is arguably the one positive element of the Jiang era that can rightfully be laid at his doorstep, and Kuhn devotes several sections to it. Jiang is portrayed as singularly concerned with the relationship, even in the face of the nationalistic rage of China's disgruntled youth and the unremitting criticism of remnant CCP Stalinists. Believing that the road to China's great-power ambitions runs through Washington, Jiang made a bet to err on the side of good relations: he paid a fence-mending visit to the United States in 1993; he decided that Hu would appear on television in his place to address the nation after the U.S. bombing of China's Belgrade embassy in 1999; and he quickly settled the crisis over a stranded U.S. spy plane on Hainan Island in 2001.

Despite Jiang's efforts, there is no evidence that Hu currently shares this vision, and every indication that he favors an Asia-centered strategy instead. The Jiangist philosophy may ultimately loom as the path not taken, but it will remain the dominant countervision if Hu's more standoffish approach begins to fail.


Despite the books on "the China threat," "the China boom," and "the China century" now pouring off the presses, the media occasionally contain hints -- even muffled cries of terror -- indicating that some senior leaders in Beijing may not be so confident about their country's future. In a March 2005 interview with Der Spiegel, China's deputy minister of the environment, Pan Yue, warned of "a political crisis" if uncontrolled economic growth continues, noting bluntly that the "miracle will end soon." The warning signs -- environmental damage, rural insurrection, worsening corruption, and millenarian movements such as the Falun Gong -- are everywhere. But expressing such sentiments above the din of CCP propaganda is politically dangerous because the party's rule is built almost entirely on the promise that the somewhat imagined "miracle" will continue.

Kuhn is nonetheless allowed to offer a few such cautions. He quotes Jiang's wife as saying that the files on her husband's desk always dismayed her: "Explosions here, rioting there. Murders, corruption, terrorism -- little that was nice." Kuhn is even permitted to slip in a warning from Jiang himself. As he edits the communiqué of the 2002 16th National Congress of the CCP (during which he ultimately steps down as party chief), Jiang asks drafters to heighten the "sense of insecurity" in the document, rather than let it blather on as usual about the party's achievements. "Don't think the good times will last forever," Jiang tells the drafters as he covers the second-to-last paragraph in red ink. Here is an excerpt from the resulting paragraph, published in the official press: "In the face of a world that is far from being tranquil and the formidable tasks before us, all Party members must be mindful of the potential danger and stay prepared against adversities in times of peace. We must be keenly aware of the rigorous challenges brought about by ever-sharpening international competition as well as risks and difficulties that may arise on our road ahead.

Those are the words of a man who sees China more clearly than the fans and fearmongers abroad -- the same people who thought that Brazil, Russia, and Japan were going to take over the world. Although The Man Who Changed China overall seeks to portray China's cultural and national confidence, it raises more warning signs than one would expect."

Kuhn says that Jiang fears democracy as a threat to growth and national stability, but there are also signs that he and his successors see the writing on the wall. "A premature democracy would reallocate resources to political debate and thereby sacrifice mid- and long-term economic and social benefits for short-term political freedoms," Kuhn writes, essentially speaking for Jiang. The word "premature" is revealing. Jiang's views are presented only at the end of the book and only obliquely, but they display the loss of faith in dictatorship that has usually prefigured elite-led transitions to democracy. "There are far more variables in the social sciences than there are in engineering," Jiang is quoted as saying, with philosophical gravity. "Therefore social sciences are more complicated. The more I learn, the more I realize how much we have yet to learn. As for political issues, they are more complicated still." Kuhn then editorializes that China's post-Jiang leaders "will react more analytically and less emotionally to historically encumbered issues," such as "the changes still needed in China's governance and the Communist Party."

There is much in the official worldview of China's leaders that is horrific, and Kuhn dutifully and unapologetically details Jiang's more odious opinions: that the thousands of people summarily executed every year in China are merely "criminals" deserving punishment, despite the serious flaws in China's judicial process; that left to his own devices, the Dalai Lama would create a slave society in Tibet, and China's brutal invasion and occupation of Tibet is comparable to the Union army's march on the Confederacy; and so on. But the virtue of The Man Who Changed China is that it provides a near-perfect representation of this worldview. Read this book not to understand China or its politics, but to understand the mindsets of China's leaders -- from the inside out.

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  • Bruce Gilley is Adjunct Professor of International Affairs at the New School University in New York. He is the author of four books on China, including China's Democratic Future and Tiger on the Brink: Jiang Zemin and China's New Elite.
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