Death of a compromiser

Jiang Zemin, one of the shapers, for good and (mostly) ill, of modern China, died yesterday from “leukemia and multiple organ failure” at the age of 96. Although he had been out of the public eye for many years, his death throws another unknown into China’s delicately balanced political situation.

China in the 1980s was trying to reform and modernise, trying to throw off the shackles of state socialism that Mao Zedong had imposed. Deng Xioping, twice purged by Mao, had outwitted and outlasted his rivals to take supreme power, and was leading the country down the “capitalist road” – aided by younger liberal protegés such as Hu Yaobang, who became head of the Communist Party in 1981, and Zhao Ziyang, premier from 1980.

But then things began to move too quickly for Deng’s comfort. Hu was forced to resign in 1987 for being too much the reformer, and his death in 1989 became the trigger for liberal protests that eventually led to the massacre of Tiananmen Square. Zhao, who had shown his sympathy with the protesters, was also forced out, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

With the conservatives in the ascendant and his succession planning in tatters, Deng looked for a compromise candidate: someone who would keep the lid on political dissent without entirely betraying his legacy of economic reform. Jiang, previously party boss in Shanghai, was the man he chose: he became head of the party in 1989 and president of China in 1993.

Deng remained powerful until his death in 1997, but Jiang gradually asserted his own control and was unchallenged until his retirement in 2004. He continued Deng’s policy of moderate reform, opening the country more to the world economy without relinquishing the party’s monopoly of power. It was an uneasy compromise, but it suited the balance of forces within China; his successor, Hu Jintao, carried on in much the same vein.

Only in 2012 did a new leader, Xi Jinping, decide to turn the clock back towards Maoist totalitarianism, and even he proceeded very cautiously at first. And now, apparently at the peak of his power, Xi faces the challenge of an unsustainable Covid policy that has produced nationwide protests on a scale that is starting to stir memories of the days of Tiananmen.

Jiang was not the sort of leader to inspire mass affection; his death is unlikely to lead to the sort of public expressions of grief that became so politically explosive in 1989 (and previously with the death of Zhou Enlai in 1976). But in comparison to Xi his rule seems like a liberal era, and in recent years he has apparently been an object of some nostalgia – including the unlikely nickname of “Uncle Toad”.

It’s a complication that Xi could well do without. At the same time, Jiang’s example shows how durable the party’s power has been, and how fraught is the road of liberalisation.

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