A few years back, some of my journalist colleagues made a thoroughly irreverent video for a Christmas party, a montage of photos of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin with The Clash underneath singing, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
The question at the time was about when Jiang – the former Communist Party General Secretary and President of China – would relinquish his final title, head of the Central Military Commission. The answer, ultimately, and to the apparent annoyance of his successor Hu Jintao, was 20 months after he’d stepped down from the other posts.
This time, the question is more existential, and the answer is unclear. Rumors started swirling when the 84-year-old Jiang did not show up for the Communist Party’s 90th anniversary gala on July 1st. They grew more intense on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, late at night on July 5th.
By the morning of the 6th, China’s censors had stepped in, prohibiting discussion of Jiang’s state of health – or existence. Among the terms blocked for search or for posting were the Chinese characters for “Jiang” – which also means river – “general secretary,” and “myocardial infarction.” Still, “Jiang” was listed as the top trending topic on Weibo, even as the searches were blocked.
Meanwhile, over on the other side of the Great Firewall, English language postings joked about what really might be going on.
“Official CCP line declares Jiang 30 percent dead but 70 percent alive,” quipped Josh Gartner on Twitter, playing off the Communist Party’s “ruling” that Mao Zedong’s record, including the catastrophic policies during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution that led to some 40 million deaths, was “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong.”
But at least some media were taking the news seriously. Hong Kong’s Asia TV – which is known to have connections to the Party – ran with the news on an evening broadcast. It promised a special report at 9:30 p.m. But at 9:30 p.m., a South Korean soap opera aired instead.
Similarly, a Chinese Central Television (CCTV) reporter tweeted that people should watch CCTV news at 10pm – but at 10pm, after the commercials for beer and maotai (grain alcohol favored at banquets given by Communist officials) – CCTV led with the news of current President Hu Jintao’s comings and goings for the day, and then switched to speculation over who would host the 2018 Winter Olympics.
So what’s going on? Good question. It would be odd for a Party-friendly Hong Kong media organization to run with news that the Party doesn’t yet want out. It’s also odd for the Party not to have publicly denied Jiang’s demise, and put the rumors to rest.
One possibility is that Jiang is not dead. Another is that he is, but the Party wants to control the timing, and the narrative, and it doesn’t want to release information or allow the grieving to begin, until it has its tributes in place and its line on Jiang’s legacy straight.
When Jiang’s predecessor, Deng Xiaoping, died in February 1997, the news was released at 2 a.m. Rumors had swirled then, too – not for days, but for months – and there was anxiety, despite the fact that Deng had long been infirm and out of the picture, that his death could mean a setback for his reforms.
In the end, there was no such thing. Jiang carried on Deng’s legacy. He didn’t have Deng’s or Mao’s revolutionary street cred – he tried to get some to rub off by posing for photos in some of the same iconic poses as they had, like reviewing the troops while standing erect, through the sunroof of a moving car. But he did oversee the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, and the awarding of the 2008 Olympics to China.
And while Jiang cracked down hard on the spiritual sect Falun Gong, and lobbed missiles across the Taiwan Strait to show his displeasure with Taiwan’s first presidential elections, he also allowed an opposition party – the China Democracy Party, led by Xu Wenli – to operate above-ground for six months in 1998, between Jiang’s visit to the United States and President Clinton’s to China, before slapping Xu with a long prison sentence, eventually commuted for health reasons as long as Xu left the country.
That may not sound like much, but in the midst of China’s current crackdown on social critics and even on lawyers trying to operate within the parameters of the Chinese constitution, it’s dizzyingly progressive.
Jiang took flak within the Party for being too friendly to the United States. His party trick, of being able to recite the Gettysburg Address by heart, didn’t go over as well with a younger, more nationalistic, set of cadre. Jiang also took flak for favoring the “Shanghai clique” – officials he’d known there, who shared his vision for a free market China in which the elites – including private sector elites – could claim their place in the Party alongside the traditional constituents of workers and farmers. Indeed, under Jiang, the elites pulled ahead.
Jiang’s contribution to Party philosophy, “The Three Represents,” is all about that. Sort of.
It comes from a speech he gave in February 2000 on an inspection tour in Guangdong province, and has been elevated to the firmament of the Party’s most lofty rhetoric.
His original words?
“The Party has always represented the developmental needs of China’s advanced production capacity, represented the progressive direction of China’s advanced culture, and represented the fundamental interests of the broad majority,” Jiang declared in his Guangdong speech.
Scratching your head? You’re not alone. The average Chinese citizen might be hard-pressed to tell you what the Three Represents means to him or her – or means in general.
The average Chinese citizen may also wonder what the big deal is, about whether Jiang Zemin is still around. As a Chinese friend said to me in the days the rumors were swirling, “What does it matter?”
Even when Deng died, there was little outpouring of genuine grief from the general public. Older workers complained that Deng had betrayed the pure Communist spirit of Mao’s time, and left Chinese to exhausting and stressful competition in a free-market society. And young Chinese just wanted to get on with a way of life they took for granted, a life Deng’s reforms had made possible, of making decisions without the Party in every aspect of their business.
It’s hard to know how Chinese will remember Jiang Zemin. But it was under him that China first opened up to the Internet now speculating on his demise. It was under him that the Party first allowed private ownership of housing, and for private entrepreneurs to join the Party. It was also under him and his business-friendly policies that corruption deepened, the income gap widened, and the Communist Party was ever more challenged to explain exactly how China was still Communist.
Jiang was no democrat, but he was colorful, and took chances, and opened up new spaces to a society in rapid flux. Under him, a generation grew up with a “patriotic education” that stressed a century of humiliation visited upon China by foreigners, and the inevitability of China’s rise. But it also grew up with the Internet, satellite TV, the right to travel abroad, and thus a wider range of influences to shape it. That generation has now grown up – patriotic, yes, but also sassy, switched on and satirical in ways the Party couldn’t have anticipated, and is struggling to keep up with. Intentionally or unintentionally, Jiang had a hand in all of this.