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COMMENTARY

Ghost From the Past Hinders China

How can we miss Jiang Zemin if he won't go away?

Sunday, August 8, 2004

By Sam Crane


Some people just don't know when to quit. And when the person in question can influence the course of history in the world's most populous country, the consequences of obstinacy can be nationally debilitating.

Jiang Zemin, the former general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and president of China, gave up those posts in 2002 and 2003, respectively. But the 77-year-old has held on to the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, making him the highest-ranking civilian leader of the armed services. From that post he has worked to undermine the authority of the current president and general secretary, Hu Jintao.

Jiang has, in the last year, taken backward-looking and intransigent positions on key issues and his positions still carry significant political weight. He strikes a threatening stance toward Taiwan; he rejects compromise with Hong Kong democracy advocates; he is quick to crack down on domestic dissidents; he meddles with economic policy and obstructs even the most modest political reform.

It is impossible to know how Hu would govern without Jiang's glowering presence, but it is clear that the elder official stands in the way of meaningful political change.

China is one of the most dynamic and rapidly changing countries in the world. In recent years, economic reform has reached deeper and wider into Chinese society than ever before. Its east coast cities are booming with new investment, new construction and new lifestyles. Where once a decrepit and gray communism limited personal expression and fulfillment, now a rollicking and colorful market-driven popular culture bursts with rock 'n' roll and rap and private cars and basketball stars. A new individualism is being fueled by cellphones and laptops. The very definitions of China and Chinese-ness are transforming before the eyes of the world.

For all of the change, however, China's political institutions have remained largely the same as those created by Mao Tse-tung in 1949. Although state power has receded from the economy and society, the government is still a sclerotic, undemocratic world. Those who dare speak out against the status quo continue to run the risks of surveillance, detention and persecution.

Rule of law is still hamstrung by the patrimonial privileges of an elite class of high-ranking officials. The antiquated political apparatus is obviously ill suited to the animated society it supposedly serves.

Jiang personifies all that is outmoded in Chinese politics. He refuses to cede full power to a new generation and let China change as it will. In doing so, he is making the same mistake as Mao and Deng Xiaoping before him.

In 1959, Mao stepped down as head of state, though he remained chief of the party. He could not accept his diminished role, however, and came roaring back in 1966 to foment the disaster of the Cultural Revolution. In 1989, when the highest level of political leadership deadlocked on the question of imposing martial law in the face of massive popular protests in Tiananmen Square, Deng, then formally in retirement, pressed for the use of troops against the citizens of Beijing. He got his way, soiling his historical reputation and eviscerating China's governing institutions by undercutting leaders with official standing. Jiang is fully cognizant of these national tragedies, but he seems oblivious to the fact that he cannot wield power beyond his time and that if he pushes his own agenda too hard the outcome could be terrible for China as well as his own place in history.

In the end, Jiang cannot keep China from changing. If he relinquishes power he would set a new, constructive precedent. Unlike Mao and Deng, he could be China's George Washington, a leader who, in leaving office even when others wanted him to stay, allowed a government to develop beyond the will of any single leader and let a country come into its own.


* Sam Crane is a professor of political science at Williams College.