Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 11

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

Jovial appearances and upbeat media reports to the contrary, President Jiang Zemin is hardly a happy man. And socioeconomic problems–particularly the adverse impact of accession to the World Trade Organization–are only the superficial reason for Jiang’s disquiet.

This is despite the fact that in year-end meetings on economic policy and planning, the president did devote a lot of time to ensuring sociopolitical stability in the midst of drastic economic changes. “Development must be at the service of stability,” Jiang said repeatedly in internal sessions with senior cadres. However, the root cause of Jiang’s angst, Beijing sources say, is that he is having difficulty preserving his legacy. And for a 75-year Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief on the eve of retirement, his place in history has assumed overwhelming importance.

Jiang’s frame of mind can be gauged by looking at the three-point agenda he has set for himself in the run-up to the 16th CCP Congress next October, which will witness the party’s changing of the guard. These three objectives have been cited in Beijing’s political circles as “conditions” that Jiang has laid down for stepping down from all his positions in 2002 and 2003. The president, however, has met with unexpectedly fierce resistance on all three counts.

First, Jiang wants his Theory of the Three Representations and other dictums to be enshrined in the party constitution next year. The CCP charter must also be revised to allow private businessmen to join the party. The Beijing sources said conservative cadres and party members opposed to recruiting businessmen had concentrated their firepower on one point: that according to Marx, private entrepreneurs are “exploiters” and thus unfit to become party members.

It is understood that Jiang has asked several top think tanks–including the Central Party School, the CCP’s Policy Research Office and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences–to come up with ways to show why, in this particular historical juncture, the “new classes” of businessmen and managers are not really exploiters. “Some theorists have suggested that, at least for workers in shareholding companies, there can hardly be exploitation because employees are entitled to dividends as well as bonuses,” said an economist who works for a Beijing-based brains trust. “Other think tank experts have indicated that so long as private businessmen do not engage in illegal practices such as tax evasion or forcing workers to work overtime without pay, they can’t be called exploiters.”

Up to now, these rationalizations have not satisfied Jiang’s critics. Jiang’s frustrations are indirectly reflected in a People’s Daily commentary in late November. It cited Jiang’s latest instruction: “We must unify [cadres’] thoughts in the course of liberalizing our way of thinking.” Translation: Jiang’s teachings represent the new way of thinking–and they must be taken as gospel truth.

Jiang’s second goal is personnel arrangement, or ensuring that proteges such as Head of the CCP Organization Department Zeng Qinghong, Vice Premier Wu Bangguo and Guangdong party chief Li Changchun will be inducted to top councils such as the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) next year. Jiang wants his men in the PSC to ensure that his teachings and overall legacy will not be revised. For example, to boost the profile of the unpopular Zeng, Jiang has brought him along during his recent provincial tours. Yet because of his reputation as Jiang’s hatchet man, Zeng is known in some quarters in Beijing as the “latter-day Kang Sheng,” a reference to Mao Zedong’s hated political executioner. A well-placed Western diplomat in Beijing said, however, that Jiang cannot have his way with everything. “It looks like Jiang will have to sue for compromise with the other factions,” the diplomat said. “If he wants to score big in the area of theory such as revising the party charter, Jiang may have to accept that one or two of his proteges won’t make the PSC.”

Jiang’s third goal is perhaps most difficult to accomplish: He wants the 16th Congress to pass a resolution saying that, even after his retirement, the PSC has to consult him on important policies. This is reminiscent of a similar resolution endorsed by the party Central Committee in 1987 in which the leadership headed by Zhao Ziyang agreed to defer to the retired Deng on major matters of state. A number of current and former PSC members, including Premier Zhu Rongji, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Li Ruihuan, and former parliamentary chief Qiao Shi, have indicated their disapproval of what many regard as a retrogressive move.

Meanwhile, on the foreign policy front, Jiang’s detractors have claimed that because the president is preoccupied with 16th Congress-related maneuvers, he has been unable to stand up for China’s interests in the post-September 11 world.

It seems clear that in the course of the Afghan war, Beijing is more a passive onlooker than an active participant. This passivity also goes against Jiang’s own theory of “Great Power Diplomacy”–that China should play a role on the world stage that is commensurate with its fast-growing economic and military muscle.

Jiang’s critics have ticked off the minuses for China in the wake of the largely successful military campaign of America and its allies. For example, both Pakistan, a close ally of China, and Moscow, which has a quasi-military alliance with Beijing, are in the first case tilting toward and in the second cozying up to America. Moreover, Washington seems certain to maintain quasi-permanent footholds in Afghanistan and a number of Central Asia states.

As proof of Jiang’s failings, nationalistically minded Chinese scholars and cadres have cited the fact that countries with less economic clout than China such as Russia have been playing a much more active role in foreign affairs. It is understood that Jiang’s answer to his critics was an old dictum: “He who strikes last has the last laugh.”

Jiang’s foreign policy advisers have claimed that Beijing still has cards up its sleeves–and that it won’t be the loser in the Central Asia power game. They have indicated, for example, that, given Islamabad’s reliance on Chinese help with military high technology, it is unlikely the administration of President Pervez Musharraf or his successor would dump Beijing for Washington. On Afghanistan, Beijing has pointed to its ability to work with the Russians–who have intimate ties with the Northern Alliance–to prevent U.S. domination of the new Afghan administration. In late November, the Foreign Ministry confirmed Beijing had been in close contact with representatives of the Northern Alliance. On Central Asia, including areas close to the oil-rich Caspian Sea, diplomatic scholars say that Beijing has set up special task forces to boost ties with the region through means including dramatically increased investments in the energy and other sectors. Jiang aides also exude confidence in reviving the influence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, whose six members–China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan–have vowed to tighten cooperation to fight terrorism and religious extremism.

Beijing’s optimism, however, is belied by the fact that perhaps to deny ammunition to the anti-Jiang forces, the leadership has continued to ask the official media to play down coverage of the Afghan war, including the military exploits of Washington and its allies. TV images of the deaths of Afghan citizens coupled with American successes in Central Asia could trigger another wave of anti-American sentiments–as well as more criticism of Beijing’s apparent failure to stand up to Washington in its own backyard. Instead, the state media and publishing houses are devoting substantial resources to embellishing Jiang’s achievements. Official papers, for instance, have reported that an actor resembling the president and party chief will star in the forthcoming movie Deng Xiaoping, billed as an “epic production” on the history of reform. A main theme of the film is how Jiang has inherited and developed Deng’s initiatives. Early next year, the first volume of the multi-tome Selected Works of Jiang Zemin will also hit the bookstores. The book will contain the speeches and pronouncements of Jiang since he was Vice Minister of Electronics in 1982. Ironically, the president’s vaunted Great Power Diplomacy–which has come in for so much criticism since September 11–is said to form a major core of Jiang Zemin Theory.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.