The Son of Heaven?

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To be president of China's 1.3 billion people is already a management proposition from hell. But to become Emperor of China requires a degree of chutzpah from another dimension, an almost mystical aura of power that can move mountains, change the weather--and deal with pesky foreigners who want 51% of your telecoms market. Last week President Jiang Zemin made a grab for emperor status, by forcing through a deal with the United States that promises to get China into the World Trade Organization and open the country to free international trade for the first time in its history. Along the way, 73-year-old Jiang had to move mountains of conservative opposition at home, change the atmospherics between Beijing and Washington and, yes, deal with 100 million tangled telephone lines.

By any measure it was a monumental deal for China, and a huge personal triumph for Jiang. Many China watchers thought WTO was dead in the water after Premier Zhu Rongji failed to get U.S. President Bill Clinton to sign off on the deal in April and the U.S. bombed China's embassy in Belgrade in May. Conservatives were on the rampage inside the Communist Party, the reformist Zhu was being attacked as a traitor and all talk of WTO had dried up. U.S. and Chinese negotiators had no contact for five months. Reports during the summer that Zhu was offering to resign caused the Hong Kong stock exchange to plummet, as gloom spread around the region.

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Jiang, a master at political manipulation, was biding his time. He wanted China to get into the WTO, both for the prestige it would bestow on the nation in the eyes of the world, and for the support it would give to China's reforms. But he was careful not to confront the hard-liners head on. Instead, he spent the summer and fall slowly rebuilding the consensus behind the reform movement, patiently pushing the argument that China could not overhaul its inefficient state-owned enterprises without opening up further to international competition. At the same time, he was reportedly telling Zhu not to resign--his job was not over.

Jiang played his hand brilliantly. With the November deadline for the WTO conference in Seattle approaching, he let Clinton know at a summit in Auckland in September that the two sides could reopen discussions. But still he waited for Clinton to call him, twice, before he told his negotiators to go for a deal. That's the emperor mentality, says Fred Hu, chief China economist for Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong. You kowtow to me first. It was also a sop to conservatives within his party: the U.S. was coming to China, not the other way around.

The American negotiators obligingly traveled to Beijing, where Jiang kept a dignified distance from the talks, sending Zhu in as his point man to thrash out the details. Once the pact was signed, Jiang leapt to center stage, elbowing Zhu aside. The photo-op was Jiang, says U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, who led the American team. He had every photographer in the room, and the only thing that played in Beijing was Jiang meeting with us--'concluding the deal.' Jiang was ebullient, sporting a 32-tooth smile and shaking every American hand he could find.

It was a classic Jiang moment: charming, upbeat, light-hearted. His courtesy was unflagging. But something was missing--the triumphal speech to his fellow Chinese, the grand gesture or immortal sound bite that would capture the historic nature of the moment. In China's long tradition, an emperor needs to inspire awe--tinged with a dash of fear--in his subjects. Instead Jiang took Barshefsky to a private pavilion for viewing swans and chatted cordially to her about calligraphy scrolls hanging on the walls.

After 10 years in power, Jiang is still gravitas-challenged. Amiable but stiff, he comes across as soft and unthreatening--which may be exactly why he is still China's leader. He is the default option in a time of great uncertainty for the Communist Party. Jiang is something of a paradoxical figure, says Jonathan Pollack, chief China expert at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California. It's less that he has overwhelming power, but that the leadership is very anxious. They have a collective self-esteem problem. Premier Zhu's bold talk of moving forward bravely and striding through mine fields to achieve economic reform tends to make party veterans edgy. Jiang, by contrast, is as reassuring as warm rice porridge on a cold day--comfort food for party elders who are nervous about threats to their power in the face of China's growing diversity and modernization.

While Jiang surely appreciates that politics is the art of the possible, Zhu seems to prefer sharpening his teeth on the impossible. Compare the two men's approaches to the WTO deal. In April Zhu flew to the U.S. with the outlines of an agreement, confident that his personal intervention could clinch the deal with the Americans. He was staking much of his credibility on the vagaries of the American political system--a risky gamble at the best of times. With allegations of Chinese spying poisoning the air, Clinton turned down Zhu's offer at the last moment, unsure that he could get congressional backing. The Premier returned to China humiliated and with a rapidly eroding power base.

When Jiang took over the task, he brought with him all his inbred caution. After the April debacle with Zhu, Jiang didn't want a repeat embarrassment, says Hu. Only after Clinton's second call did Jiang indicate that if Barshefsky came to Beijing, there would be a deal, according to U.S. officials with knowledge of the two presidents' communication. With Jiang having already re-established a new consensus about WTO in his own party, by the time the talks opened in Beijing more than a week ago it was no longer a matter of political will on either side, merely a question of hammering out the details.

No surprises--that is the way Jiang operates. From the moment he was unexpectedly put in charge of the Communist Party in June 1989, after the Tiananmen Square massacre, Jiang has been a cautious consensus builder. I feel as if I am walking on thin ice, he said then, and even now his nervous smile and effete hand wave suggest someone afraid to venture too far from the shore.

Jiang studied electrical engineering at Jiaotong University in Shanghai, which left him with an interest in technology. American executives who have met Jiang this year say he peppered them with questions about the Internet. Jiang's first job was in a confectionery factory in Shanghai, and he rose steadily through the ranks until he was made mayor and then party chief of China's most outward-looking city. Along the way, he was involved in setting up China's successful special economic zones, which brought huge flows of capital and technology into the nation.
Jiang's cautious nature has served him well. During Mao's time, it helped him to steer clear of the worst effects of the political purges. The President is often referred to as a weather vane because of his knack for aligning himself with the prevailing political wind. But if he lacks the boldness usually associated with great leaders, he does not lack the ambition. Although he told U.S. reporters in 1995 that it is impossible for another Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping to appear in China, Jiang has worked hard to emulate their public appeal. At the People's Republic's 50th anniversary celebrations on Oct. 1, Jiang presided over a choreographed parade in Tiananmen Square from an open car that slavishly mimicked a 1984 appearance by Deng. Around the country posters have begun appearing with the three leaders side by side. His advisers invent slogans and campaigns for him in the Maoist mode, like the unmemorable three stresses of Jiang Zemin thought--stressing study, stressing politics and stressing healthy conduct. When he travels overseas, any microphone or conductor's podium is an excuse to perform in public. But the harder he tries, the less he impresses. The days of Mao are long gone in China. Chinese people have become more individualistic, secular and cynical toward politics, says Wenran Jiang (no relation), associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta. Much of the image-building that Jiang Zemin's handlers engage in is actually counter-productive, he says: The gap will widen between propaganda and reality, between what the People's Daily says about Jiang and what people really think about him.

Jiang's dilemma is that he is a prisoner of the Communist Party he leads, 50 years after its revolution. It's a party empty of vision, nervous about unrest and out of touch with a younger generation of Chinese for whom money, not ideology, is the bottom line. Jiang understands the need for economic development, but political openness is still out of the question. Even as the ink was drying on the trade deal that will boost China into the 21st century, Beijing police were busy detaining members of Falun Gong, the demonized meditation cult that was banned in July in a spasm of official paranoia. This month also saw the imprisonment of four pro-democracy activists for terms ranging between five and 11 years.

But while the WTO deal will not change Beijing's autocratic political system overnight, in the longer run, by requiring China to comply with international regulations, it will increase the pressure on the country's obsolescent political ideology. It will also further undermine Jiang's--or any other leader's--chances of attaining imperial status. In China the rules have always been based ultimately on the words of the emperor, says Andy Xie, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter's chief China economist in Hong Kong, who was born in Shanghai and has spent his life following China's development. The people in power could always change the rules. This is the first time you will have the rule of law in China.

Premier Zhu, who had almost disappeared from view this summer, has surely been partially rehabilitated by the WTO deal. He will now have a rulebook to back up his personal invective against bureaucrats resisting his reforms. But although Jiang has saved Zhu to fight another day, few expect him to regain the swashbuckling momentum with which he began his premiership in 1998, when he promised to make all state-owned enterprises profitable within three years.

Meanwhile, Jiang is still seeking his emperor's robes. Mao exhorted China to stand up in the world; Deng told Chinese it was glorious to get rich. Jiang will not inspire the Chinese with details of a trade pact, however important. His last hope for greatness lies outside the economic sphere, in a small island off China's southern coast. His big obsession is Taiwan, says Xie. Jiang is not naive enough to think he can achieve reunification in his lifetime, but he wants some kind of date for reunification. Then he will go down in history, says Xie. Unfortunately, Jiang Zemin Thought does not play big in downtown Taipei. Moving mountains and changing the weather may prove easier than convincing 22 million Taiwanese that their future is best assured under Emperor Jiang. WTO may be as good as it gets for the smiling President.