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Monday, Jan. 14, 2002

Jiang proves to be a masterful statesman

Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG -- Jiang Zemin was widely regarded as a lightweight and a transitional figure when he became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 1989, succeeding Zhao Ziyang, who was purged in the wake of the Tiananmen Square uprising. However, he confounded his critics and, four years later, was given the additional titles of head of state and chairman of the party's Central Military Commission, a position he took over from former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

Even so, many still did not take him seriously. Some even regarded him as a buffoon because of his propensity to sing "Love Me Tender" and "Swanee River" at meetings with foreign dignitaries and to show off by quoting Shakespeare or reciting Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

But in the past decade he has shown that he is a consummate politician. He has outmaneuvered all his rivals within the party. He has won acclaim in the way he handled China's main bilateral relationships, in particular that with the United States. And, of course, he has overseen the largely uneventful return of Hong Kong and Macau to the Chinese fold.

One reason why he was seen as a lightweight in the early years was his decision never to challenge the authority of Deng and other party elders. They were the ones who ordered the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square and who had installed him in his position as general secretary. Jiang obediently toed their line.

But, little by little, Jiang built up his support base until, in 1993, he was given the presidency, a largely ceremonial post, as well as the key position of head of the military commission. Deng had clung to the latter post even after his ostensible retirement. With the armed forces under his command, Deng remained in effective charge of the country.

Even though he now held the top positions in the party, state and military, Jiang continued to tread cautiously, constantly making sure he was not offending anyone. He carried this so far that while attending the late 1993 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Seattle, Jiang was the only one to read from a prepared text at a leadership meeting that was meant to be informal. All the other leaders spoke off the cuff, but Jiang had to be sure he did not make any mistakes. In a sense, he was still on probation.

Jiang has shown himself an expert at networking. He knew that his weakness lay in his lack of a military background, and he spent years cultivating ties with senior military officers. One ailing general, who was being treated in a military hospital, became a staunch supporter of Jiang's after the party leader showed up at his bedside one day, unannounced and without an entourage, to ask about his health.

After 1993, Deng became progressively more frail and Jiang's worries about interference by him and other party elders gradually receded. Still, even though the armed forces were formally under his control, Jiang continued to be extremely deferential to senior military officers. But, as the older men retired, Jiang promoted other men to replace them, men who owed their rise to him. Today, his control of the military is unquestioned.

Although he likes to play the clown, Jiang is an extremely hard worker. In the all-important field of foreign affairs, Jiang has worked hard to hone his linguistic abilities. Few people realize that, at the age of 75, he continues to set aside time every day to polish his English. Last summer, while holidaying at the seaside resort of Beidaihe, he brought with him 10 language experts so that he could continue to practice English and other languages. Last April, he surprised his Chilean hosts when, during a six-nation swing through Latin America, he delivered a 40-minute speech in Spanish, a language he was previously not known to speak.

Later this year, Jiang is expected to step down from his position as party leader, to make way for a younger generation. And, next year, he will yield the presidency as well. But, like Deng, Jiang will not give up control of the armed forces, at least not yet. Being chairman of the military commission will give him a platform from which to provide guidance to the next generation of leaders, who as yet are largely untried.

It is a reflection of the respect Jiang has gained over the years that such a move is seen as comforting to many people, both in China and abroad. Jiang, after all, has been the country's leader for the last 13 years and China has remained largely stable, with a growing economy. Presumably, he will give up this last position when he is satisfied his successors can run the country on their own. This period of tutelage is acceptable, given China's circumstances, but it ought not be too protracted.

Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong.

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