World Analysis: Under Jiang, China projected a more open image
US VP Harris flying to Philippine island near disputed sea
PUERTO PRINCESA, Philippines (AP) — U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is flying to a western Philippines island province at the edge of the South China Sea on Tuesday to amplify America’s support to its treaty ally and underline U.S. interest in freedom of navigation in the disputed waters, where it has repeatedly chastised China for belligerent actions. A new confrontation erupted in the contested waterway ahead of her visit when the Philippine navy alleged a Chinese coast guard vessel had forcibly seized Chinese rocket debris as Filipino sailors were towing it to their island.
He grinned, and — just eight years after the crackdown on democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square — the spectacle of China's ruler beaming and glad-handing people in the very heart of capitalism seemed at once charming and really, really odd.
It wasat the New York Stock Exchange, and Jiang Zemin, the powerful head of the Chinese Communist Party and government, was ringing the opening bell. “Good morning!” he boomed. “I wish you good trading!”
This was entirely in keeping with the image of Jiang, whoon Wednesday a full generation after his rule and two Chinese leaders later. He leaves behind a country very different than the one he tried to shape. Now it's effectively Xi Jinping's nation — and a society against “zero-COVID” lockdowns that saw crowds in the streets of Beijing and Shanghai demanding an end to Xi's and the Communist Party's rule.
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Jiang's death, smack in the middle of the most visible demonstrations since that 1989 bloodshed on Tiananmen Square, illuminates how much has changed between the China of the late 1990s and early 2000s — when he was at the height of his rule — and today's economic powerhouse and more powerful and dominant country.
At this micromoment in its history, China has this going on: Xi justas Communist Party general secretary just a few weeks ago. And on Tuesday, his government vowed to “resolutely crack down on infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces” — by implication targeting crowds in major Chinese cities who protest COVID-19 lockdowns or pretty much anything else.
Former China leader Jiang Zemin dies, aged 96
Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin died Wednesday at the age of 96, state media reported, hailing him as a great communist revolutionary who helped quell the 1989 pro-democracy protests. "Comrade Jiang Zemin was an outstanding leader a great Marxist, a great proletarian revolutionary, statesman, military strategist and diplomat, a long-tested communist fighter, and an outstanding leader of the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics," Xinhua quoted the letter as saying.
Jiang, a former Shanghai mayor and onetime soap factory manager, was appointed by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping — the architect of China's post-Mao “reform and opening up” — as general secretary three weeks after the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in which hundreds, perhaps thousands died.
In the ensuing years, Jiang helped guide the nation out of the isolation resulting from China's actions during that bloody saga. In doing so, he took pains to present himself to the world as a smiling bon vivant who liked to play piano, sing and find human touchpoints with other nations' leaders — a contrast to the generally dour technocrats who surrounded him.
Jiang was no pushover, though. He was a political pro, and that engaging persona was meticulously calibrated to reflect his nation's ambitions of the moment: not only its return from the diplomatic hinterlands but its desire to sit as an equal at the table of nations, to shepherd a peaceful handover of Hong Kong back to China, to join the World Trade Organization and, eventually, to secure the 2008 Summer Olympics for Beijing.
Former China leader Jiang Zemin dead at 96
Jiang Zemin led China through an era of stunning transformation after coming to power in the traumatic aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Viewed by many as a transitional figure, Jiang was politically hamstrung in the Tiananmen aftermath. But after Deng's tour of booming southern provinces in 1992, Jiang proved an eager champion of his patron's "reform and opening up" to lift China's people from poverty."Without addressing the problem of (economic survival) first, it would be difficult to achieve any other right," Jiang said in 1997.
By contrast, China today — encouraged in no small measure by Xi himself — presents a robust, sometimes swaggering presence on the world stage and, perhaps even more so than a generation ago, bristles at any suggestion that the ghosts of Western nations' Cold War “containment” policies might be coming back to do some haunting.
“There was a feeling that there was more of an openness to China in the post-Tiananmen decade of the 1990s. Since then, it’s clear that China has moved in a direction where political control is stronger from the top down," says, a professor of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford University.
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China's zero-COVID policy may unwind, but it might not happen at the government's pace.In mid-October, China's pandemic performance helped justify Xi's norm-breaking third term as leader of the long-ruling Communist Party. The pageantry took place as an estimated 200 million of China's 1.4 billion people were in lockdown. As of late November, more than double that number were still living under restrictions, according to economists at Nomura.
Jiang's pre-social media era of Chinese politics, Mitter says, was part of a period in which the authoritarian leadership would be willing to “incorporate a certain amount of space at the edges" when it came to freedom of expression.
No more, as the responses to this week's demonstrations suggest.
“The idea that there is this alternative, relatively slightly looser path within Chinese authoritarianism, at least for this generation, seems to have been laid to rest," Mitter said.
The comparison of two eras, while instructive, goes only so far. By many standards, Jiang was hardly a permissive leader. He cracked down on the Falun Gong spiritual movement, maintained tight controls over expression and saw to it that all manner of activists — for human rights, labor rights and democracy in general — were jailed.
He was, after all, leading the ruling party in a one-party country and had been installed by Deng at one of the nation's most difficult moments with a mandate to set things back on track. He had potent motivation, too: Jiang's predecessor as party general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, became famous around the world by chatting openly with protesters before the crackdown — and being purged and placed under years of house arrest afterward.
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Nevertheless, comparing today's China to the Jiang era does offer a reminder of an old truth: The persona of a leader and that of a nation are always intertwined, particularly when power is deeply concentrated in that single leader's hands. And from from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin, and now with Xi Jinping, even a behemoth like China can find itself reflecting the whims and personality traits of the person navigating its destiny.
Just before the stock exchange walkthrough in 1997, one of Jiang's English-speaking aides corralled reporters during a breakfast with former President George H.W. Bush in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The aide pointed to Jiang, chatting away with Bush, and said something to the effect of, “See? He's just a regular guy.”
Today, 25 years later in a different era with a very different China, it's hard to imagine one of Xi Jinping's handlers ever wanting to convey something like that to anyone — much less daring to do so.
Associated Press writer Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report. Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation for The Associated Press, was correspondent and news editor in China from 2001-2004 and director of Asia-Pacific news from 2014 to 2018. Follow him on Twitter at
What the Protests Tell Us About China's Future .
China has seen the largest protests in years in response to COVID-19 lockdowns. What do they reveal about China today?First, it’s important to recall that Chinese society is intensely contentious. Numerous protests happen every day and have for many years. What made these demonstrations special was that they appeared to have been spurred on by what we might call a master, or umbrella, frame. Sparked by the tragic fire in Urumqi, workers, students, other young people, urbanites upset about delivery of services and public goods, and at least a certain number of broader regime critics all hit upon an anti-lockdown frame that resonated especially strongly.