Editor’s Note: Dr. Hu Wei is the author of “Possible Outcomes of the Russo-Ukrainian War and China’s Choice”, a commentary published by our website that attracted global attention. Dr. Hu wrote this essay on December 1, a day after his alumni Jiang Zemin passed away in Shanghai. As this essay ponders what Jiang Zemin meant for today’s China, it also forces us to dwell on China’s current trajectory and how it will be perceived and received by the rest of the world in the years to come.
In 2000, I transferred from Fudan University to Shanghai Jiao Tong University for a teaching position. There, the people respectfully referred to Comrade Jiang Zemin as ‘Senior Alumnus’ or ‘Senior Alumnus Jiang’. Since joining the faculty of Jiao Tong University, I have also referred to him as ‘Senior Alumnus Jiang’, who—upon his retirement as the Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party—came to visit his alma mater. I had the honor to participate in the related activities.
I learned the unfortunate news on the afternoon of November 30th. The news did not come as a surprise, though I did hope that it would be, as it had always been, a mere ‘rumor’. The official obituary was followed by an unprecedented wave of online remembrance. That a man may be remembered as such is enough to prove that he was an extremely unusual and extraordinary individual.
In recent years, there have been an increasing number of online articles praising Senior Alumnus Jiang, and the reasons are worth analyzing. It is increasingly recognized that Jiang—as a major leader of the Party and the State—made a series of correct decisions that impacted the viability of the Chinese nation. I would like to briefly share two or three of his contributions to express my condolences for the death of Senior Alumnus Jiang. I lived through these episodes
I. Restoring China-U.S. relations onto the track of healthy development
As Spring turned to Summer in 1989, Comrade Jiang was appointed Secretary General amidst the most serious political turmoil since China’s reform and opening up. To address the crackdown on China by the United States and the West, Deng Xiaoping proposed the strategy of ‘biding our time and hiding our capability’ (韬光养晦) . Based on a series of talks by Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin summarized the strategy into a concise and profound twenty-eight word policy: 冷静观察，稳住阵脚，沉着应付，韬光养晦，善于守拙，有所作为，绝不当头 (observe calmly, secure our position, take one’s time before reacting, hide our capacities and bide our time, maintain a low profile, and never claim leadership). These twenty-eight words contained three major points of significance: first, what stance ought China adopt against U.S. crackdown? Such is the premise of the problem; second, what principles ought to be followed when biding our time? The political strategy of biding our time holds a profound understanding of traditional Chinese culture and applies the Daoist idea of ‘doing nothing but doing everything’ to the extreme. It is a strategy that implements the great wisdom of foolishness to overcome rigid strength with flexibility; third, what will become of the hiding of our capacities and the biding of our time? Deng offered a clear warning: China should neither take the lead nor carry the flag.
The twenty-eight words policy reflected not only Deng Xiaoping’s political tactics but also Jiang Zemin’s political wisdom. To elegantly summarize the many things said by Deng Xiaoping is indeed crucial; Jiang Zemin not only grasped and summarized Deng Xiaoping’s strategic thinking in a complete, accurate, and profound manner but also put it into practice and carried it out seriously. One of the main purposes of ‘biding our time’ is to defuse conflicts and break the deadlock in China-U.S. relations. Only by not taking the lead can China avoid a full-scale confrontation with the U.S.-led Western bloc during a potentially eventful time in China-U.S. relations. However, to bring China-U.S. relations back on track with healthy development, there must be progress and strenuous effort. To this end, Jiang Zemin actively promoted the consensus of a constructive strategic partnership between China and the U.S. through ‘head of state diplomacy’ between the two nations.
A key step towards progress was Jiang Zemin’s visit to the U.S. in 1997. It was the first official visit to the U.S. by the Chinese head of state in twelve years, and the most important visit by a Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping’s visit in 1979. However, the idea of the ‘Chinese threat’ was rampant in the U.S. at that time, and China was portrayed—after the Cold War—as the ‘new evil empire’; prior to Hong Kong’s return, some believed that the democratic process in China had ended; during the first seven months of 1997, members of the U.S. Congress introduced sixty-six anti-China bills—a record-breaking number. Against this backdrop, it took great courage and charisma to turn the tide.
Indeed, Senior Alumnus Jiang’s charismatic personality left a deep impression. For example, while in Honolulu, he played ‘Greetings to Hawaii’ on a Hawaiian guitar and invited the governor’s wife to improvise and sing for the audience; in Southern California, where he was welcomed by the Chinese diaspora, Jiang sang the Beijing opera ‘A Bright Moon Shines Under the Window’; at the White House, President Clinton accompanied Jiang on a tour of Lincoln’s Bedroom; when shown the Gettysburg Address penned by Lincoln himself, Jiang recited the opening of the speech in English…
On November 1st, Jiang Zemin delivered a speech at Harvard University. I was on a one-year visiting fellowship at Harvard and had the privilege to witness this historic moment. It was the first time that a Chinese leader gave a speech at Harvard University. Jiang spoke in English and once again showed his unique charm, which was very well received by the audience. After finding out about President Neil Rudenstine’s upcoming visit to China, Jiang spoke of the friendly relations between Harvard University and China and said, ‘I look forward to meeting you again in Beijing[…] or Shanghai’, which elicited laughter and applause from the audience and became a highlight of the speech. Professor Wang Huning (王沪宁), who accompanied Jiang on the visit, told me afterward that the original speech did not have ‘or Shanghai’; it was instead improvised by Jiang on the spot to great effect. There was a burst of applause inside the venue, yet, at the same time, there was also a burst of ‘noise’ outside—where supporters of ‘Taiwan’s independence’ and ‘Tibet’s independence’ shouted through loudspeakers anti-China slogans. An American reporter asked President Jiang whether he heard the ‘noise’ outside. Instead of avoiding the ‘thorny’ question, Jiang replied: ‘although I am over seventy years old, I still have good hearing. My only choice is to speak louder than them!’ Once again, there was prolonged applause and laughter.
During the visit, President Jiang and President Clinton agreed that the two nations are both committed to nurturing a strategic partnership oriented towards the 21st century, which marked a historical turning point in the post-1989 period during which China-U.S. relations faced serious challenges. The following year, President Clinton visited China. After the state banquet in the Great Hall of the People, Jiang invited Clinton to conduct the military band that performed the two countries’ national anthems, bringing the atmosphere to a climax. Indeed, in establishing a close personal rapport, the two presidents created an important foundation to bringing China-U.S. relations back on track of healthy development. At that time, I was in the United States and wrote an article titled, ‘Striving to Build a Constructive Strategic Partnership between China and the U.S.—Background and Prospects of Jiang Zemin and Clinton’s Mutual Visit and Head of State Diplomacy’, which was published in the [Chinese-language newspapers] Washington News, the Boston News, and the Southern American News on June 26, 1998. Shanghai ‘Wenhui Daily’ also published my article titled ‘The Establishment of a Strategic Dialogue Mechanism is Important for Head of State Diplomacy’ on June 24, 1998 [reprinted by “Digest Bao”]’ on June 28, 1998). ‘Head of state diplomacy’ thus became a key factor in the improvement of China-U.S. relations, paving the way for the success of China-U.S. WTO accession negotiations in 1999, as well as China’s formal accession to the WTO—which created the conditions for China’s eventual rise—in 2001.
II. Realizing the transformation of a revolutionary party to a ruling party
Another major contribution of Senior Alumnus Jiang was the creation of the ‘Three Represents’ theory, which followed the universal laws of human history and the trend of world development and also creatively answered the questions of what type of Party to build and how to build it.
From today’s perspective, the ‘Three Represents’ is a highly profound and creative theory, providing a new historical orientation for where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is headed at the turn of the century. To this end, Jiang commissioned Huang Ju (黄菊)—then a member of the Politburo of the CCP Central Committee and Secretary of the Shanghai Municipal Committee—to establish a research team with the aim to explore the subject matter in-depth, and I was fortunate enough to be a member. It was the middle of the millennium when I published the article ‘The Three Represents: The Coordinates of Party Construction for the New Century’ (in Exploration and Debate, No. 10, 2000) (探索与争鸣), which was one of the earliest papers providing an interpretation of the ‘Three Represents’. One of the articles’ core arguments—which attracted some attention—was that the CCP should realize the transformation from a ‘revolutionary party’ to a ‘ruling party’ under the guidance of ‘Three Represents’. The idea of moving from a ‘revolutionary party’ to a ‘ruling party’ was the basic consensus of the research group at the time, and this consensus was affirmed by Comrade Huang Ju and reported to Secretary General. I remember that Comrade Huang Ju once mentioned to me that some older comrades in the Party disagreed with this view asking, ‘is the ruling party no longer revolutionary?’ But Secretary General nevertheless adopted this idea. However, in order to accommodate the sentiment of the older comrades in the Party, the official report of the Central Committee did not explicitly adopt the concept of changing from a ‘revolutionary party’ to a ‘ruling party’ but rather made the following statement: ‘Our party has changed from a party that led the people in their struggle to seize national power to a party that leads the people to hold national power and rule for a long time’. The statement first appeared in Secretary General’s July 1st speech in 2001 and was later widely quoted. However, I have noticed that in the later published ‘Selected Works of Jiang Zemin’, the explicit assertion of the ‘revolutionary party’s’ transformation into the ‘ruling party’ does appear. This demonstrates that Senior Alumnus Jiang himself approved of this important viewpoint.
The political judgment to move from a ‘revolutionary party’ to a ‘ruling party’ is one of great significance and constitutes, in my view, the important notion behind the ‘Three Represents’. In fact, I think it forms the core meaning of the ‘Three Represents’ theory. To this day, the ‘Three Represents’ remains one of the guiding ideologies of the CCP, and the idea of the transformation from a ‘revolutionary party’ to a ‘ruling party’ that accompanies this important ideology should not be overlooked. Indeed, (even today) the direction of the CCP needs to be seriously considered and examined.
Eventually Jiang Zemin solemnly declared in the report of the 16th Party Congress that ‘the important thought of the ‘Three Represents’ was put forward on the basis of a scientific judgment of the Party’s historical orientation. Through revolution, construction, and reform, our Party has changed from a Party that led the people in their struggle to seize national power to a Party that leads the people to take control of national power and govern for a long time; from a Party that led national construction under external blockade and a planned economy to a Party that leads national construction under the conditions of opening up and developing a socialist market economy’. The transition from revolution to governance, from closure to openness, and from planned economy to market economy represents the basic direction of China’s social progress in the new historical period after the Third Plenary Session of the 11th CCP Central Committee. Only when there is no reversal of this principle can China usher in a bright future and realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
III. Promote the development of people’s democracy through intra-party democracy
Political reform has always been an insurmountable obstacle after the launch of reform and opening up. If Mao’s historical greatness lies in establishing a New China and solving the problem of ‘state building’ Deng’s historical greatness lies in promoting reform and opening up, which has greatly liberated and developed the social productive forces. For future leaders, how to reform the political system and solve the problem of the development of China’s democratic politics is the key to establishing their historical legacy. This historic task was already proposed by Deng, but he has failed to accomplish it. For the third generation of CCP leadership, how to complete this unfinished business, is a major issue.
As the core of the third generation of CCP central leadership, Jiang has dwelled on this issue. He put forward the proposition of ‘building socialist political civilization’ and expanded the construction of ‘two civilizations’, which was proposed by the second generation of leaders, into the framework of ‘three civilizations’. These are actually designed to provide space to crack the issue. However, the issue is so sensitive and difficult that it is really not easy to find a viable pathway.
As a political scientist, I’ve always been interested in this question. As early as the late 1990s, I began to conduct research on political reform with intra-party democracy as the focus, and the results have attracted certain attention. Xiao Gongqin (萧功秦), a famous scholar, has made a detailed comment on this in his article On the Theory of Intra-Party Democratization from the Perspective of Political Development. The article Intra-Party Democracy and Political Development: Developing Intra-institutional Resources for Democratization in China, published in the Fudan Journal, No. 1, 1999, is my representative work on this subject. In 2008, it was compiled into Chinese Scholars on Democracy and the Rule of Law by famous scholars Keping Yu (俞可平) and Arif Dirlik. As a collection of contemporary Chinese ideological and cultural essays, this book collected the representative papers of sixteen authoritative scholars in politics and law in the past ten years. But in 1999, my paper caused controversy and the Fudan Journal was criticized, and I was under a lot of pressure.
In 2000, I joined the research group organized by Ju Huang and participated in a high-level research seminar organized by CCP’s Central Government. In particular, Comrade Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) personally came to the seminar to be debriefed and deliver a speech. During this process, I had an in-depth conversation with Comrade Ju Huang. In accordance with his request, I completed the internal research report ‘Intra-Party Democracy and Political Reform’ in November of that year, which he submitted to the Secretary General. Senior Alumni Jiang approved this report. In his speech commemorating the 80th anniversary of the founding of the CCP in 2001, Jiang clearly put forward the important conclusion that ‘We should actively promote the development of people’s democracy through the development of intra-party democracy’. As a result, my views on ‘intra-party democracy’ were no longer an issue. Some leaders called me a ‘rooster that crows early’. If he had not taken the lead in advocating intra-party democracy to promote the development of people’s democracy, I am afraid that my ‘unjust case’ would not have been rehabilitated. Of course, if one is able to do one’s part for national development and social progress, a little personal suffering is nothing.
In his report to the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Jiang Zemin explicitly proposed ‘developing socialist democracy and building socialist political civilization’. He went on to stress that ‘intra-party democracy is the life of the Party and plays an important role in demonstrating to and leading people’s democracy’. It should be said that inner-party democracy leading the development of people’s democracy is a major strategy of our political reform and democratic political development, which still needs to be further studied and advanced.
But in any case, as time passes, people are more and more appreciative of Senior Alumnus Jiang’ intelligence and wisdom. This is a phenomenon rarely seen in China.
Correction: This translation has been updated to reflect the Latin usage of Jiang’s title as ‘Senior Alumnus Jiang’ as opposed to ‘Senior Alumni Jiang’.