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Influencial Chinese Leader, Jiang Hopes to Mark History - 2003-03-14

Chinese President Jiang Zemin has confounded critics who said he would not last long in Beijing politics. 13 years later he is still in charge and his ideas are enshrined in the Communist Party's constitution.

When Jiang Zemin became head of China's Communist Party in 1989, many China scholars dismissed him as a political lightweight. Author Jasper Becker was one of them, describing Mr. Jiang as a "pretty hopeless character."

"People say he disarmed them," Mr. Becker said, "because he was so buffoonish and he constantly showed off singing songs in karaoke fashion, and telling jokes."

But Mr. Jiang had been tested as Shanghai's Communist Party chief and mayor. When pro-democracy protests erupted in 1989, Mr. Jiang cooled emotions without showing weakness and without bloodshed - unlike what happened in Beijing with the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

So when China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping needed someone to replace the head of the Communist Party, who was fired for mishandling Tiananmen, he picked Jiang Zemin.

But many political observers were not sure he had the contacts and intellect needed to survive in the tougher political league he encountered as national party chief.

Mr. Jiang skillfully embarked on building networks of allies, beginning with his Shanghai clique. These were younger officials who learned administrative and political arts in Shanghai, China's largest, richest, and most cosmopolitan city. Mr. Jiang promoted them to national jobs where they in turn helped and protected him.

He also courted elderly, but still powerful, revolutionary leaders, paying them constant attention, asking their opinions, and helping their children. Scholars say, Mr. Jiang used budget increases and flattery to enlist the aid of politically powerful People's Liberation Army leaders.

These networks grew and helped the Communist Party chief as he took over the presidency and became head of the military. The relationships also helped him launch and control anti-corruption campaigns to bring down powerful rivals, including Beijing party boss Chen Xitong in 1995.

Those are the political skills that helped him stay in power.

But what is his policy legacy after 13 years as the most powerful man in China?

As president, Mr. Jiang continued Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, which spurred growth and brought prosperity to some Chinese, particularly in large coastal cities. China's urban centers have been transformed physically with modern high rises, major highways, and other up-to-date infrastructure.

But author Bruce Gilley, who wrote a biography of Jiang Zemin, says reforms also brought problems, including unemployment and a growing gap between the newly rich and the many poor. "China is a more corrupt and divided country than it was when he came to office," he said. "It is not clear that Jiang has resolved the problems of reform in any significant way. The country is facing a fiscal crisis and a financial crisis. Inequality has expanded greatly under his reign and corruption has expanded as well."

In the past few years, Mr. Jiang launched a major campaign to root out corruption from party and government ranks and thousands of officials have been jailed or even executed for graft crimes that have threatened to undermine the Communist Party's credibility with the public.

In terms of political reform, liberalization has not occurred to the same degree as in the economic sphere. In many ways there has been a new crackdown on religious, ethnic, and political dissent that could challenge the party's monopoly on power.

In the past six months, Jiang Zemin has been scaling back his political role: last November he relinquished his leadership of the Communist Party and this month his presidency. He is expected to keep his role as head of the military, in an effort to continue to wield influence. But he wants one more thing before he goes - a place in history.

Last November Mr. Jiang took a step in that direction when the Communist Party included his theory of "Three Represents" into the constitution. Mr. Jiang uses it to ideologically explain how a political movement founded on anti-capitalist principles can make room for entrepreneurs.

Mr. Jiang argues that the Communist Party must represent the most advanced productive forces in society. In China today, that is private business.

Entrepreneurs are creating millions of jobs while old state-owned companies are collapsing and throwing millions of people out of work. Tens of thousands of angry unemployed workers have already taken the risk of staging demonstrations, demanding back pay, and accusing factory bosses and government officials of theft and corruption.

Such social unrest is seen as a threat to Communist Party rule. Mr. Jiang persuaded his party comrades to let business executives join the Communist Party, in the hope of boosting economic growth while retaining control of businesses.

Many scholars doubt that Mr. Jiang will get a very big place in history. But then most scholars doubted he would last very long at the top of Chinese politics.