Beijing Jiang Zemin has long struggled to go down in history as a great leader. He was China’s head of state and chairman of the Communist Party for 13 years. However, he was never known for his visions, but rather acted as an administrator and compromise figure for various currents in the party.
Only after the change in 2002 to the leadership generation with Hu Jintao at the helm did Jiang Zemin seem to have reached the peak of his power: For a long time he pulled the strings as a “strong man” in the background. He has now died at the age of 96, state media reported on Wednesday
Unlike other Chinese leaders who withdrew from the public eye after stepping down, the vanity-leaning Jiang Zemin continued to enjoy the limelight. He was “in a way the first modern president of China,” wrote Willy Lam, author of a biography of the politician: because of his ability “to manipulate the media to his advantage.”
After resigning from office in 2002, Jiang Zemin posed for photographs with young girls on the Shanghai waterfront, continued his inspection visits around the country as before, and continued to influence key personnel decisions, much to the chagrin of his successor Hu Jintao. But after the next generation change in 2012 to today’s head of state and party Xi Jinping got him into trouble for this string-pulling role.
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The new president’s anti-corruption campaign, which had to fend off resistance within the party, also targeted Jiang Zemin’s network, which reaches high up into the military leadership. In 2015, the party organ People’s Daily criticized unspecified “retired leaders” who clung to power and continued to meddle in what was taken as a message to Jiang Zemin.
Guideline of the “Three Representations”
Jiang Zemin bequeathed the often ridiculed principle of the “Three Represents” (Sange Daibiao) to China, thus opening the party to “advanced production forces”, i.e. private entrepreneurs.
The vague theory was an adaptation to reality and served Jiang Zemin to make up for his ideological deficit and catch up with Deng Xiaoping and Mao Tsetung. His ideas were anchored in the constitution, but his name – unlike his two great predecessors – was not.
There have been rumors of his death over the past few years. Jiang Zemin aroused all the more admiration when he appeared alive again despite his old age. At the 2017 party congress, he watched the three-hour speech by state and party leader Xi Jinping on “Socialism for a New Era” on the podium with a large magnifying glass. However, he seemed to show boredom or even disrespect by yawning with his mouth wide open or glancing at his watch repeatedly, which added to his popularity.
The people liked to call him “the senior” (Zhangzhe). “Behind the nostalgia for Jiang Zemin, however, is not necessarily genuine admiration or approval of his harsh style of government, but rather rejection of the current leader Xi Jinping,” Lotus Yang Ruan wrote in The Diplomat.
Jiang Zemin (born August 17, 1926) was known for his love of poetry. He liked to show off his knowledge of Goethe or Shakespeare to state guests. But the values of Western authors never fell on fertile ground with him. “The Western political model must never be copied.” He ruled out political reforms. “China’s political system must never be shaken.”
“I’m not a dictator”
He only knew human rights as the right to exist. All factors endangering stability should be “nipped in the bud,” Jiang Zemin announced. One civil rights activist after another went into custody. Fear of instability drove Jiang Zemin. Behind the uncertainty was a career that was determined by chance.
After the overthrow of party leader Zhao Ziyang shortly before the crackdown on the democracy movement on June 4, 1989, Deng Xiaoping had to find a compromise candidate. He found it in the technocrat who had been Shanghai’s mayor until then. Although the former factory director knew something about state-owned companies, he was suspicious of modern stock markets. Under his reign, the British crown colony of Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, as was the Portuguese-administered enclave of Macao in 1999.
With China’s growing weight in the world, Jiang Zemin also gained international stature. After protests on a trip to Europe in 1999, Jiang Zemin felt unfairly compared to Chile’s dictator Augusto Pinochet. He was outraged by a European diplomat: “I’m not a dictator”.