Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 17

By Mark Simon

Three problems with non-elected leaders are how they get in, how they stay in and how they go out. In this world, Jiang Zemin was actually a bit ahead of par in how he came in and how he has stayed. Yet the manner in how he is now choosing to leave, or to be more precise, not leave, may well prove to be the legacy he leaves China.

It is now fairly apparent that the uncomplicated handover of 2003 from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao has been scuttled. Jiang’s posing with PLA brass in every mainland media outlet the regime controls–which is all of them–is a clear sign that rumors of his wanting to retain or at least share control of the government, party or military are true.

Predicting how all this plays out would take hubris that probably even the most self-assured Sinologist couldn’t muster. Yet Jiang does not rule within a vacuum, and pressure on him to completely leave may develop from how others, such as Zhu Rongji, pass out of power. It is in presenting after-office options for Jiang that both the international community and the corporate world could help in pressing for a change to a younger and probably more open leadership.

A transition from the current old guard in China to Hu and his younger colleagues is desirable, not only from the hope that a more politically liberal attitude emerges among the new leadership, but also in that a transition that would follow the death of Jiang would likely be fraught with infighting that in turn would lead to instability. If Hu must wait till Jiang dies to begin to assume full control of his office, then there is room for a host of rivals to emerge.

While it’s not possible to stop Jiang Zemin from playing politics in China, keeping he and other retiring leaders busy outside China may have some merit. Idle hands are the devil’s tools. Keeping political mischief at bay in China by sending potential rivals abroad is a trick as old as China. No one expects Hu to hold power by sending Li Peng and Jiang Zemin around the world as goodwill emissaries. Yet it is a different story if the world asks Jiang and other retiring leaders to come out and help. In other words, a little pull from the international community to help the younger leadership push out the old.

The role of the international community in helping nations transition power is well established. The familiar refrain from China of nations not interfering in other nations affairs is hardly applicable if the extent of UN interference in China’s transition is to ask Jiang Zemin to visit Columbia and pressure communist rebels to stop blowing up school buses.

An argument that is in fact true, however, may be the best reason to consider helping retiring Chinese leaders find meaningful employment in international affairs.

China is a growing world power, but is still a minor player on the international stage in terms of providing top-flight talent to help solve international problems. This failing, combined with the surplus talent that the 2003 leadership transition provides, is a match that should not be dismissed as flippant.

If we accept Jimmy Carter sticking his nose in every nation on earth, why is it not possible to expect Zhu Rongji to lead an international team to South America or Africa to discuss debt problems? Certainly the man who was financial leader of the largest population on earth, the world’s fastest growing major exporter, and a nation holding an account reserve of US$200 billion might have some credibility in advising the forever bankrupt Brazilians and Argentines on getting their financial houses in order. And Jiang Zemin could certainly give some advice to African leaders on market reforms that end famine.

Admittedly we won’t see Li Peng leading human rights delegations around the world. And it may be a bit far-fetched to think that the next chair of the Asian Development Bank could be Jiang Zemin. But the potential to engage Jiang and other retiring leaders on any number of international projects is an option that anyone who takes the talk of China as an emerging power seriously might do well to consider.

Even if one questions the basic legitimacy of the current Chinese rulers it defies logic to not try and draw them out and at least try to see if there is a chance that China’s retired leaders can make the same contributions as retired leaders of other nations. Is there an automatic assumption that a former Chinese leader cannot be counted upon to act fairly in an area outside of Asia? Let’s face it, certainly they would be less painful on the ears of even American conservatives than some of the retired left-wing Europeans we have traveling the globe offering bad economic advice.

Even if one doubts about the effectiveness of retired Chinese leaders having a role in the international community, then the argument for access to these retired leaders makes sense. A quiet word at an international forum or while a retired Chinese leader is in a foreign capital on business is a potential line of communication. For a nation once known as the hermit kingdom, any access to leaders holds potential rewards.


Outside engagement for China’s retiring leaders is not limited to UN commissions and free economic advice. In fact, it is about time that China’s retiring leaders get some legitimate benefits from those free market polices they have implemented in China.

From seats on corporate boards to milking the lecture circuit there is cash to be made, and made legitimately. What is wrong with Zhu Rongji as a board member of Ford?

While Sinologists may gasp in horror–or twinge in envy–that one of their beloved study subjects could be seduced by a version of that all American device, the golden parachute, to say that Zhu Rongji is worth US$100,000 per speech is a market fact that any speaking agent will confirm. And while Zhu would be a prize for the board of directors for Goldman Sachs or General Electric, the real game would be between Asian and especially Chinese firms for the hundreds of retiring cadres who will change out when Hu Jintao takes over.

Most Asian firms doing any sizable business in China already pay “consultants” who are either official’s friends or relatives for greasing the wheels of government. To have a former politburo member or former Ministry of Communications minister as an active board member is an opportunity most firms would jump at.

We already see a bastardized version of the Japanese system of retired Chinese officials sitting on the boards of state-owned firms. A more commercial application of this practice is already following, as there is a strong business argument for these retired Chinese leaders to be placed on the boards of any company doing business in China.

Just as American corporations use minority board members to reach out to America’s diverse community, so too would the abilities and knowledge of a Chinese board member be useful for anyone who wants to be a player in China. Currently Hong Kongers and Taiwanese are the sought after candidates for firms looking for a Chinese director. Why not get someone with clout in China–that is, a retiring political leader.


Leaving power is an unnatural act. Jiang Zemin will not want to give up power anymore than any other leader. Frankly who blames him? Once he, Zhu, and the others leave all anyone expects of them next is to die quietly.

We actually expect him to take that option?

Offering Jiang and other leaders options for a meaningful place on the world stage is not far fetched or overly optimistic. If we want a change in leadership in China we must find a way for older leaders to be kicked upstairs with the prestige and means to make them desire it. It is not interference for the international political and business community to offer a retiring leader a job.

Zhu Rongji has already started this trend with his often-stated desire to return to his university as soon as he can. And as Mr. Hu can argue, if a university is good enough for Zhu Rongji, then leading a UN peace delegation to Columbia is certainly a position worthy of Jiang Zemin.

Besides, on his way to Africa, he can stop in LA for that Disney Board meeting.

Mark Simon is the director of corporate accounts at the Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s second-largest Chinese language newspaper.