Beijing's mane man

Tiger on the Brink: Jiang Zemin and China's New Elite

Bruce Gilley <em>University of California Pr

Chinese leaders, whose flacks emphasise their "plain living" (a bowl of noodles handed to them by a modest wife is always enough), have a penchant for self-eulogising titles. Jiang Zemin, already State President, Party General Secretary and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, possesses two titles that Mao, Great Teacher, Helmsman, and Red, Red Sun in Our Hearts, never held: Core Leader and Chief Engineer. The first was accorded him by Senior Leader and Chief Architect Deng Xiaoping; the second, Jiang bestowed on himself.

For Bruce Gilley, Jiang is a kaleidoscope of contradictory qualities: he does not cultivate a personality cult but is now "exalted as an emperor in his own right". After Tiananmen Square (about which he feels guilty) he ordered few punishments, and has described the foreign reaction to the massacre as "much ado about nothing"; yet he also reminds foreign visitors that the 1989 killings were necessary to preserve China's stability. He "has committed minor sins", Gilley says, " but is not a man to hate", even though he presides over a government - this Gilley does not say - that Amnesty International says is responsible for more extra-legal executions than all other countries put together.

These and many other contradictions - sometimes Gilley loses control of them from one page to the next - appear in this first biography of Jiang Zemin. The author, a young Canadian with near-perfect Chinese, has established himself as a coming journalist in his short career in Taiwan and Hong Kong. He is currently the Hong Kong correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review and a visiting fellow at the Berkeley Journalism School.

Gilley takes Jiang from his birth 73 years ago to the early spring of this year. He was born in Yangzhou, not far up the Yangtze river from Shanghai. A good-sized town, once one of China's richest, it remains a pretty place, renowned for its barbers. Gilley devotes pages and pages to Jiang's oiling, dying and combing his "mane", but only a few lines to human rights.

Jiang's family was well off and to some extent "intellectual", which in China means little more than being literate and not doing manual work. He was estranged from his merchant father and was adopted as a kind of son by one of his two communist uncles. The connection with a "revolutionary martyr" did Jiang much good in his largely untroubled climb up the usually thorny slope of Chinese political life. He participated marginally in university politics against the government of Chiang Kai-shek, joined the Communist Party, became an engineer and eventually spent a short time in a Soviet factory. He was barely brushed by the purges of the Cultural Revolution. Early on in his political life Jiang found that invaluable tool for party success: a much older and well-connected mentor, Wang Daohan, who eased Jiang up the slope after him.

Gilley traces Jiang's career, which he justly characterises as "joining the pack and emerging in the lead", although I disagree when he says that Jiang does not "scuttle rivals". Once Deng Xiaoping was on his deathbed, Jiang began "scuttling" some of the Senior Leader's closest allies in industry, the army and in the highest reaches of government. He abruptly retired Qiao Shi, a slightly democratic Politburo Standing Committee member. Most recently Jiang purged the vastly corrupt Chen Xitong, mayor of Beijing during Tiananmen and one of Deng's appointees to the Politburo. Hailed by the dog-like press as Jiang's most masterful anti-corruption stroke, this was actually a carefully elaborated ploy to demonstrate that the Dengists were on their way out.

The genuine contribution of Gilley's biography is to show that Jiang was not "plucked from nowhere" by Deng in 1989 to succeed him. He had been a minister and Central Committee member since 1982 and in the Politburo since 1987. When he was appointed mayor of Shanghai in 1985, and then the city's party boss, Gilley explains, it was but another example of prospective national leaders being sent to Shanghai before their final elevation.

Gilley insists that Jiang does not employ the party's traditionally brutal practices. He claims - without a convincing source - that during Tiananmen Jiang was isolated because, in one of Gilley's queer phrases, Deng knew that "anyone associated with the impending crackdown in Beijing would be tarred at home and feathered abroad".

He suggests, equally unconvincingly, that Jiang feels "guilt" about the use of violence in Tiananmen, in which he played no part; in Jiang's Shanghai base, Gilley notes, there was relatively little brutality against the supporters of Tiananmen. However, the extreme violence in Beijing was the national exception. In most of the other hundred or so cities in which there were uprisings in the early summer of 1989 there was relatively little armed suppression at the time; punishment came afterwards with arrests and executions. In any case, Jiang always observes that what took place in Tiananmen was necessary.

Gilley alleges, too, that the reason for the violence in Tiananmen was that the People's Armed Police, initially responsible for order in the capital, were not equipped for non-lethal crowd control. This is the explanation of Premier Li Peng and it is not true. I was tear-gassed by the PAP on 3 June and beaten with their rubber truncheons. The brutal fact is that Deng wanted to use tanks and automatic weapons in Beijing.

According to Gilley, Jiang "sought to limit outright punishment to the hard core of Tiananmen organisers, many of whom had already fled abroad". He claims he has used only primary sources, but quotes an American political scientist's figure of 1,179 cadres specifically charged with Tiananmen-related offences. In his book The Legacy of Tiananmen (University of Michigan Press, 1996) James Miles, the BBC's Beijing correspondent, uses party documents to estimate that in the party alone four million members were investigated, "tens if not hundreds of thousands" of others were arrested across the country, and "millions of people who had joined the protests, not to mention those who had played a leading role, lived in terror". Miles's book is not in Gilley's extensive bibliography.

Jiang, claims Gilley, is not a chauvinist who sees China's "minority nationalities" as inferior to the majority Hans. But like his predecessors he implacably crushes cultures and aspirations in Tibet, Xinjiang and Mongolia. Gilley produces a quote from Jiang urging some local Chinese to learn from their "minority" neighbours. Gilley treats such ritual phrases as if they mean something deeper than, say, Bill Clinton's use of the Jewish prayer of atonement to exhibit his contrition. This credulity extends to his use of official media, which he describes as "reliable in their information" - because they are official. But no official media anywhere in the world rivals China's for inaccuracy, distortion and omission. And, as Gilley shows, Jiang is obsessive about media disloyalty and ensures that the press remains supine.

Gilley's language often clangs against sensibility. Politburo member Zhu Rongji, genuinely in tears when Deng dies, is described as "a basket case". No longer under Deng's thumb, Jiang is now "ruling without the Dengist training wheels". Tiger on the Brink is not as brilliant as its jacket puffs proclaim - few books are - but future students of Jiang Zemin will thank Gilley nonetheless for an impressive first effort.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition