The early progress of a man in a billion

Tiger on the Brink
June 4, 1999

Widely dismissed as a transitional figure on his appointment as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary in June 1989, Jiang Zemin has proved to have far more staying power than many expected, and now seems likely to remain in office until the 16th CCP Congress scheduled for 2002. Bruce Gilley's volume fills an important gap in our knowledge about this leader of one-fifth of the world's population. This book is not just the fullest treatment of Jiang's career and beliefs to date, it is the only one of any substance, and the author has done an impressive job of assembling sufficient evidence for a first political biography of a man who was so little known before his 1989 elevation.

The main focus of interest for many will be Gilley's explanation of why Jiang was chosen by Deng Xiaoping to succeed Zhao Ziyang when the latter was ousted for being soft on the 1989 democracy movement, and his account of Jiang's gradual assumption of supreme power over army and government as well as party during the early 1990s. Jiang's lack of a military background has frequently been identified as a disabling weakness that could prevent him from consolidating his position. But Gilley plausibly argues that Jiang has been able to obtain sufficient loyalty and obedience from the armed forces through a combination of factors: the firm support of Deng Xiaoping while he was still alive; the over-reaching ambition of the military "Yang dynasty" of Yang Shangkun and Yang Baibing, which frightened other military leaders into supporting Jiang; and Jiang's own assiduous courting of the modernisers and the ordinary ranks in the army.

Jiang, in this reading of his political convictions, was the ideal post-Deng leader because of his rare combination of strongly liberal, reformist economic instincts together with innate political and ideological conservatism, the force of the latter preventing him from being blown off course by demands for political reform as Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang had been in the late 1980s. This combination of characteristics, according to Gilley, accounts for Jiang's preferred vision of a neo-authoritarian "developmental dictatorship" for China on the lines of Singapore or Malaysia. Jiang's experience of the great campaigns of Mao's China, from the anti-rightist campaign and the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution, is adduced by Gilley as the source of his commitment to marketising reform and a mixed economy alongside a refusal to consider anything approaching political pluralism in China. Jiang was neither an obvious beneficiary nor a significant victim of any of these campaigns, Gilley argues, enabling him to develop as neither an entrenched conservative across all issues nor a convinced political liberal.

Gilley debunks speculation about the existence of a "Shanghai faction" around Jiang in the present leadership, convincingly arguing that those already marked for fast-track promotion into the central leadership were given stints in Shanghai as a form of "incubation" of rising political talent. Nor does he believe that Jiang's later promotion of a number of former colleagues from Shanghai constitutes anything more than the normal assembling of a team including trusted former local associates such as any leader would have undertaken.

Jiang is given his due in this book as a successful leader who took on a number of important issues which Deng Xiaoping neglected and made them his own: the reunification of "Greater China", tackling official corruption, party rebuilding, and the redefinition of the state's role in the economy. Possibly Gilley overstates the extent to which initiatives such as the defusing of rural unrest in the early 1990s were effective, but he offers a balanced assessment of Jiang's record, making clear there have been, and are, limits to Jiang's power and capabilities.

Gilley also freely admits that the timing of Deng's death was perfect for Jiang: any earlier, and rivals could have challenged his still-insecure hold on power; any later, and the presence of the patriarch would have overshadowed Jiang at the long-awaited handover of Hong Kong. He admirably refrains from mocking those who predicted a swift disappearance for Jiang, making clear the solid grounds on which this assumption was based in 1989.

Overall, this book is a successful mix of necessarily sketchy biography and first-draft political history of China in the 1990s.

Jackie Sheehan is lecturer in international history, Keele University.

Tiger on the Brink: Jiang Zemin and China's New Elite

Author - Bruce Gilley
ISBN - 0 520 21395 5
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 395

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