Keep Calm and Carry On: Xi Jinping Takes a Page From the Book of Jiang Zemin

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 22

Xi Jinping and other top current and former CCP officials at the sendoff for Comrade Jiang before his cremation at the PLA General Hospital in Beijing on December 5 (source: Xinhuanet)

On November 30, with mass protests only recently suppressed in Beijing and Shanghai and still simmering in Guangzhou and Chongqing, state media notified the “whole party, army and country” that former General Secretary Jiang Zemin, who led the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from mid-1989 to 2002, had died at age 96 (Xinhuanet, November 30; 8world, December 1). On December 1, Jiang’s remains were transported from Shanghai to Beijing, where a delegation, led by General Secretary Xi Jinping, comprising current and former senior Party leaders greeted the plane upon its arrival at Xijao Airport (Xinhua, December 2). Banners at the airport read “Eternal glory to Comrade Jiang Zemin!” and the waiting officials wore black armbands and white flowers on their breasts. In the days to come, public life was dominated by eulogies to the “core” of the CCP’s third generation leadership, who was lauded by state media as “an outstanding leader with high prestige, a great Marxist, a great proletarian revolutionist, statesman, military strategist, and diplomat” (People’s Daily, December 2; Xinwen Lianbo, December 6). During the week-long mourning period for Jiang, text and graphics for everything from newspapers to fast food menus were printed in grayscale (Twitter, December 1). The timing of Jiang’s death was striking as it occurred amidst the largest public pushback against CCP rule since the student protest movement in spring 1989, which culminated in the June 3-4 Tiananmen Square massacre that preceded his assumption of CCP leadership at the 13th Central Committee’s Fourth Plenum that same month (China Brief, November 28).

In his remarks at the official memorial service for Jiang on December 6, Xi extolled his forebear for guiding the CCP through an “extremely complicated situation at home and abroad” at tumultuous juncture in June 1989. (Xinhuanet, December 6). With this praise, Xi credited Jiang for not only consolidating the crackdown on dissent following the June 4 Tiananmen Square incident, but also for guiding the People’s Republic of China (PRC) through a particularly challenging international environment in the early 1990s largely defined by Western-imposed economic isolation and the collapse of the Communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which was viewed as an existential threat in CCP ranks. [1]

By lauding Jiang for sustaining Marxism-Leninism in China through the end of the Cold War, Xi is also likely seeking to cast his own consolidation of power at the recently concluded 20th Party Congress and suppressing of the recent  “white paper revolution” (白纸革命, bai zhi geming) protests through a mix of intimidation  and inducement in a favorable light  (rfi, December 4; China Brief, October 24). Moreover, Xi likely also sought to portray himself as carrying on Jiang’s approach, which entailed a mix of selective pragmatism on economic policy with firm commitment to Marxist-Leninist ideology. On the latter point, just as Jiang never contravened the orthodox view held by CCP hardliners foreign forces seeking to facilitate China’s “peaceful evolution” away from  Marxist-Leninism to political liberalism and market capitalism were behind Tiananmen, under Xi, the Political-Legal apparatus and the security services have also detected a foreign hand at play in recent protests (National Bureau of Asian Research, December 1, 1990). Although Xi has made tacit concessions in response to pressure from the protests, relaxing zero-COVID restrictions in large metropolises, his administration has actively promoted the narrative that “hostile foreign forces” seeking to orchestrate a “color revolution” are behind the protests (VOA Chinese, December 6; Xinhuanet, November 29).

A Show of Elite Unity

In a final irony, in death, Jiang received the sort of adulation he was seldom accorded in the final decade of his life, which for the former Party boss was largely dominated by the internecine rivalry between his “Shanghai Gang” and Xi’s emergent, but increasingly dominant faction. As Willy-Wo-Lap Lam noted last fall, Xi’s recent crackdown on both the tech sector and the long-running “anti-corruption” campaign/purge targeting the political-legal (政法, zhengfa) system which oversees all legal enforcement authorities including police, was aimed at rooting out Jiang’s allies in these sectors. Those targeted in the financial sector included associates of Jiang’s right hand man, former Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member and Vice President Zeng Qinghong. In addition, Xi has sought to remove allies of former Security Czar Zhou Yongkang, also a member of Jiang’s clique who was purged and sentenced to lifetime imprisonment in 2015, from the police forces and legal system (China Brief, October 14, 2021).

Despite the long running factional rivalry between Xi and Jiang, every effort was taken during the organization and holding of Jiang’s funeral to project a strong façade of unity among Party leadership (CCTV, December 6). The official organizing committee for Jiang’s funeral was led by Xi, but also included Hu Jintao, who some believed was on the outs due to his unexpected exit from the closing ceremony of the 20th Party Congress last month. Members of the funeral committee also included many of Jiang’s longtime political allies including Zeng Qinghong, his former Premier Zhu Rongji and former National People’s Congress Chairman Wu Bangguo (Xinhuanet, November 30). Projecting an image of unity among Party elites at Jiang’s funeral was particularly important in the context of the recent protests, which authorities were able to subdue more easily than the Tiananmen Square movement, not only because of China’s expansive internal security apparatuses, but also because there were no overt fissures among ruling elites as there were in the late 1980s when reformers and conservatives were locked in a legitimate struggle for power (with Deng Xiaoping the key bellwether). As a result, although Jiang’s funeral has evoked considerable nostalgia in China, it was not able to serve as a rallying symbol for protesters as the death of reformist leader Hu Yaobang was in April 1989. [2]

From “Peaceful Evolution” to “Color Revolution”

Throughout its history, the CCP has sought to frame popular pushback against its monopoly on political power as a product of foreign, almost always Western intervention, which seeks to infiltrate and undermine its political system through the promotion of “universal values” such as democracy and free speech. During the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, CCP officials repeatedly expressed concerns that the U.S. and its allies sought to orchestrate China’s “peaceful evolution” (和平演变, heping yanbian) from Communism to capitalism and political liberalism.

For Jiang, the conservatives’ obsession with the threat of “peaceful evolution” due to Tiananmen and the Soviet Union’s collapse was a major impediment to furthering economic reform and development, which required engagement with the outside world to succeed. In order to create space for Jiang to pursue economic development, Deng inserted himself into the political discourse by providing political cover for a series of editorials in Jiefang Daily (解放日报), the official paper of the Shanghai Committee of the CCP, under the collective pen name “皇甫平” (huangfu ping). The articles laid the groundwork for Deng’s famous 1992 “Southern Tour” by promoting “reform and opening up” as “socialist reform” rather than foreign-induced “peaceful evolution” and bourgeois liberalization (Chronicles of China, 2003). In effect, Deng helped create political space for Jiang to accelerate economic reforms heading through the 14th Central Committee meeting in 1992 without being tarred as “China’s Gorbachev.” At the same time that he pursued economic reform, Jiang was ruthless in rooting out any potential opposition. As Sarah Cook has noted, a decade after the Tiananmen crackdown, he launched a sweeping and ruthless campaign to eradicate the “Falun Gong, a spiritual and meditation discipline practiced in the late 1990s by tens of millions of Chinese citizens, but which was abruptly banned in 1999” after Jiang determined the movement threatened the party’s hold on power (China Brief, February 1, 2019).

In his meeting with European Union Council President Charles Michel last week, Xi reportedly acknowledged, albeit implicitly, that the Zero-COVID policy has played a role in spurring protests. He told the EU leader that the demonstrators  were “mainly students” who are “frustrated”  after three years of pandemic life (South China Morning Post [SCMP], December 2). Nevertheless, CCP authorities have largely stuck by the narrative, which has been roundly rejected by the protesters themselves, that “hostile foreign forces” are driving the “white paper movement. On November 29, at a meeting of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (CPLC), the top body for legal enforcement, CPLC Secretary General and recently appointed Politburo member Chen Wenqing, who also serves as Minister of State Security, emphasized the need to ““resolutely crack down  “on infiltration and sabotage by hostile [i.e., foreign] forces in accordance with the law, resolutely crush illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order” (Xinhuanet, November 29).

Last week, Hong Kong Secretary for Security, Chris Tang Ping-keung stated that some of the  commemorations of the Urumqi fire (the initial trigger for zero-COVID protests) held in the city contained the embryonic elements of a “color revolution” (颜色革命, yanse geming) (Zaobao, November 30). Tang noted that some of the individuals involved had joined the “black storm” (mass protests), which struck Hong Kong in 2019, joined the recent “white paper protests. He stressed the need for vigilance as these kinds of “anti-China” elements and their ilk are “determined to endanger national security.

Conclusion  

Little love was lost between Xi and Jiang. However, despite initial speculation that it might engender further protests, Jiang’s death could not have come at a better time for Xi. Indeed, Xi looks set to take a page from the book of Comrade Jiang: when facing internal unrest and external uncertainty, keep calm and carry on. However, the big question is if Xi can execute the same sort of balancing act that Jiang carried off following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in very different international and domestic circumstances.

All CCP leaders deal with the challenge of striving to remain connected and open enough to the outside world to sustain China’s economic development while simultaneously maintaining near total political and ideological control. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Xi has emphasized the latter over the former, but as the recently extensive rollback of the zero-COVID policy indicates, he may now be seeking to restore some equilibrium between control and development (PRC National Health Commission, December 7). Nevertheless, both Xi’s attributes as a leader and the presently very different geopolitical circumstances suggest this will be a tougher act for him to pull off than Jiang. While Xi can be engaging and personable with foreign interlocutors, he lacks the kind of eccentric charisma that Jiang used to both win over and assuage the concerns of foreigners with regards to China’s rise. Finally, although Jiang also dealt with Western frustration and anger toward China following Tiananmen, threat perceptions of China, particularly in the U.S., have massively increased in the intervening three decades. Consequently, while Xi may find Jiang’s playbook useful to draw on, he will not find all the solutions he seeks there.

John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: [email protected].

[1] For a comprehensive examination of how the CCP sought to navigate the collapse of the Soviet Union, see David Shambaugh, China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation (University of California Press, Apr 2, 2008).

[2] For an example of nostalgia for the Jiang era in China see this video (bilibili, July 19, 2021) of Chinese people in 1995 making optimistic predictions about their country’s future has been widely shared and circulated on social media this week, although it predates Jiang’s death.