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There was an additional factor in the mayor's rise. The leadership in Beijing was bitterly divided over whether Deng's economic reforms should continue, and a strong faction was already slowing them down. Jiang had a usefully malleable view: he was called "the Weathervane" for astute shifts in stance that made him acceptable to both sides.

In 1993 he was named China's President. But his perch at the top was extremely tenuous, almost entirely dependent on Deng's support. For that reason, Jiang was as reticent and correct as possible in his first years in power. When CNN interviewed the new President in 1993, he wanted to read all his answers from a TelePrompTer. On those occasions when he allowed himself a little spontaneity, it tended to backfire. In a 1990 interview with Barbara Walters, he described the Tiananmen killings as "much ado about nothing," prompting outrage in the West. "He is a lightweight," decided a Clinton Administration official in 1995. "Buffoon would be too strong a word."

In retrospect, it's clear those were major misjudgments. Throughout this low-profile period, Jiang was cleverly shoring up his position in Beijing. He cultivated the military, one of China's most significant power centers, and slowly gained control of its upper ranks. When Beijing and Washington found themselves staring missile to battleship in the Taiwan Straits in mid-1995, in the most unequivocal U.S. show of support for Taiwan in recent memory, Jiang realized that the confrontation was perilous, and though he technically approved the missile launches, he was able to lay public blame on hard-line generals for a serious overreaction. Jiang launched a forceful anticorruption drive, pleasing a populace that bitterly resented the cheating. Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the campaign's first victims was Beijing Party Secretary Chen Xitong, who had amassed a fortune under questionable circumstances--and whose clout Jiang was eager to neutralize.

Last month, at the 15th Communist Party Congress, Jiang unveiled his boldest maneuver yet. The President proposed a radical privatization of many of the country's deficit-ridden state-owned enterprises, his first attempt at visionary change and one that runs a high risk of widespread social unrest. At the end of the Party Congress, Jiang announced the election of a new Politburo, China's top policymaking body, and that China's armed forces would be shrunk by 500,000 men.

That remarkable performance forced a worldwide re-evaluation. Advises Arnold Kantor, a former U.S. diplomat now at the Forum for International Policy in Washington: "One shouldn't be fooled. Jiang is enormously smart and capable, but his persona is unpretentious and folksy, almost intentionally disarming." Such revisionism has prompted people to recall earlier moments when Jiang showed his bite. At a meeting in Beijing with a prominent American, he praised the distinguished visitor in English for an inspired analysis of China's needs. Then in an aside in Chinese, he muttered, "This guy doesn't know a thing about China."

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