The Surprising Rise and Survival of China's Current Leader


By Bruce Gilley

U. of California Press

410 pp., $29.95

On June 24, 1989, with China still smoldering from the military crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, the image of a heavyset, bespectacled man in a gray Mao tunic flashed across the nation's television screens.

Jiang Zemin, the former Shanghai mayor and a man virtually unknown abroad, had been plucked from obscurity by China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, to become his successor.

Jiang was quickly dismissed by China watchers as a weak transitional figure similar to Hua Guofeng, the ill-fated cadre whom Mao Zedong designated as his heir in 1976. But this was premature, writes journalist Bruce Gilley in his new book, "Tiger on the Brink."

Today, nearly a decade after Jiang's surprise appearance on the Chinese stage, Gilley's well-written biography offers important insights on two central questions: Who is the enigmatic Jiang Zemin, and how has Jiang survived at the pinnacle of Chinese power?

In spite of modest praise sprinkled throughout, the portrait of Jiang emerging from this carefully documented research is one of a strikingly mediocre man. Indeed, the author notes that while in his 50s, Jiang began calling himself "Mr. Tiger Balm," referring to a popular cure-all ointment - in rough translation, it meant he was a jack-of-all-trades who excelled at nothing.

Indeed, as a Communist, Jiang proved both cautious and wishy-washy on Marxist doctrine. He avoided dangerous activism as a youth in the Communist underground, for example, preferring instead to draw cartoon posters and play the Chinese erhu, a two-stringed bowed instrument, in revolutionary street performances.

As an intellectual, Jiang was also viewed as a lightweight, the author notes. A graduate of Shanghai's Jiaotong University in electrical-machinery studies, his early career was as a bureaucrat in China's machine-building industry, with a stint at the Stalin automobile works in Moscow. Jiang's only book was a manual on electric- power generation that he translated from Russian.

Finally, as a leader and economic reformer, Jiang has lacked the boldness and vision shown by Deng, Gilley suggests. Shanghai residents went so far as to nickname him "flowerpot," implying that he was all show and no substance. In fact, Gilley's book is full of humorous descriptions of what he calls Jiang's "egomania" - the leader's tendency in public to belt out pop songs, tell silly jokes, and primp and comb his oiled, dyed black hair.

Ironically, however, the fact that Jiang was not a superstar gave him valuable qualities that may have encouraged Deng to chose him as a successor and enhanced his chances for survival, Gilley argues persuasively. Jiang was ideologically pragmatic rather than dogmatic; he tended to build consensus rather than strike out alone, and he was a follower skilled at gauging the political winds and backing winners.

Indeed, Jiang's very weakness - his lack of a strong power base and close ties to other Beijing leaders - as well as his lack of direct involvement in the Tiananmen crackdown, made him especially attractive to Deng.

Without Deng's strong and persistent backing, Gilley makes clear, Jiang could never have survived. In turn, Jiang has loyally stayed the broad course of Deng's economic reforms. Jiang has attempted only marginal improvements on Deng's policies by focusing on problems not fully addressed by the older leader, such as corruption, crime, and the strength of the party and state apparatus.

Yet while Jiang has managed to hold onto power and maintain stability in China over the past decade - no easy task - he remains, according to Gilley, a political and social conservative. Bent on keeping China a strong, authoritarian state, he is unlikely to attempt the bold political reforms that many observers argue are vital both to China's long-term interests and to amicable relations with the United States.

* Ann Scott Tyson was a Monitor correspondent in Beijing from 1987 to 1992.

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