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Jiang Zemin: Rise to the top thanks to the Tiananmen crisis

Lea Hedrich | Shitao Li
November 30, 2022

China's former President Jiang Zemin has died. Under his rule, the economy grew rapidly, but political freedoms were rejected. Yet without the Chinese democracy movement, he would probably never have reached the top.

Ex-Chinese President Jiang Zemin waves during a parade in Beijing
Jiang Zemin particularly enjoyed showing off his talent for performance at international meetingsImage: XINHUA/AFP

Rarely was a Chinese president seen losing his cool like when Jiang Zemin visited Hong Kong in October 2000 and a journalist from Hong Kong asked him a critical question.   

Jiang then launched into a long, angry speech in which he accused the reporter and the Hong Kong press as a whole of a lack of understanding and immaturity. He even broke into English, saying that the media was "too simple, sometimes naive." The recording went around the world.

Jiang Zemin particularly enjoyed showing off his talent for performance at international meetings. He would surprise the audience with his passable English, recite from American literary classics or deliver a vocal performance. However, as extroverted as China's president appeared during and after his term in office, he was politically reserved for most of his career.

Hardworking and inconspicuous

Jiang Zemin was born on August 17, 1926, in Jiangsu province, when the internal power struggle between Communists and Nationalists began in China.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin addresses delegates following the raising of the Chinese and Hong Kong SAR flags
China's accession to the WTO, and the reintegration of Hong Kong, are among Jiang's greatest successesImage: Torsten Blackwood/picture-alliance/dpa

This was compounded by Japan's expansion into mainland China from the early 1930s. It was probably foreign domination and the civil war that sparked Jiang's interest in politics, although he studied electrical engineering at the renowned Jiaotong University in Shanghai. He joined the Communist Party in April 1946 but did not initially aspire to a political career.

He worked as an engineer in various companies, and even spent a year in Moscow in the mid-1950s. When the Cultural Revolution broke out in China in 1966 at the instigation of party leader Mao Zedong, Jiang's political restraint served him well. He was an engineer, did his work and showed himself to be neither an opponent nor a supporter of the revolution. This and his modest lifestyle ensured that he remained untouched by the Red Guards.

A surprising rise

It wasn't until the 1980s that Jiang's political career took off. After stints in the Mechanical Engineering Ministry and the electrical engineering industry, he became mayor of Shanghai in 1985 and local party leader a year later. In 1987, he was appointed to the Politburo of the Communist Party's Central Committee, the innermost circle of power in the country.

Few would have expected Jiang Zemin to ascend to the party's highest office, least of all himself.

"He probably assumed that as mayor and party chief in Shanghai, he had already reached the top of his career and would retire next," said Chinese historian Zhang Lifan.

But the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989 reshuffled the cards at the top. Jiang's predecessor, Zhao Ziyang, had fallen out of favor with China's strongman, Deng Xiaoping, for showing sympathy for the protesters.

"If Zhao Ziyang had not been overthrown, Jiang Zemin would not have come to power, either," said German sinologist Katja Levy.

Opening the Party to capitalist principles

Although Jiang now held China's most powerful office, his position was remained unstable.

"Jiang Zemin initially tried to hold on to power by sticking with Deng Xiaoping," Levy said.

Who was China's former leader Jiang Zemin?

"Between 1989 and early 1990, he was between the two wings of the party. He first showed himself to be conservative, then progressive, then conservative again, so he seemed somewhat indecisive and to most observers from abroad he seemed to be an opportunist."

But over the course of his years in government, Jiang was able to strengthen his position and establish his own faction.

Ideologically, he broke new ground with his "principle of three representations." The party, Jiang demanded, had to represent the "advanced productive forces, advanced culture and the overwhelming majority of the people."

Behind this party talk was an almost revolutionary innovation: From now on, entrepreneurs — in other words, the traditionally capitalist "enemies" — were also allowed to become members of the party. In 2002, this was even added into the Chinese constitution.

"It was, of course, very clever to include the representatives of capitalism right at the beginning and to get them on our side," said Levy. This opening promoted the development of productive forces in the Chinese system. However, it also encouraged corruption in the Communist Party, said historian Zhang Lifan.

Foreign policy successes

In terms of foreign policy, Jiang succeeded in leading his country out of the political isolation, into which China had fallen after the 1989 massacre.

China's accession to the World Trade Organization, and the reintegration of Hong Kong in 1997, are among his greatest successes.

China also experienced a rapid economic rise under Jiang — though without political liberalization. Although Jiang was the first Chinese president to give interviews to foreign journalists, he restricted freedom of the press at home. He also took a harsh course against the religious Falun Gong movement, which was banned in 1999.

Jiang relinquished the post of general secretary in 2002, but he retained the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission until 2005. Even after his retirement, he would appear publicly in the media or at party events.

Until the end, he remained a respected figure on the political scene and his word carried weight.

Jiang Zemin died at the age of 96 on November 90.

China's former president Jiang Zemin (right) listens to Chinese President Xi Jinping during the closing of the 19th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing
Even after his retirement, Jiang (right) appeared publicly in the media or at party eventsImage: WANG ZHAO/AFP

This article was originally written in German.