23 March 2019
A file pictures shows Xi Jinping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao reviewing troops in Beijing in September 2015. Photo: CNSA
A file pictures shows Xi Jinping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao reviewing troops in Beijing in September 2015. Photo: CNSA

Jiang Zemin: An open-minded leader or a leftist fanatic?

Many elderly citizens in China recently celebrated the 90th birthday of former Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin.

Over the years public opinion in the mainland has remained somewhat split over what Jiang actually achieved during his reign and his political legacy.

Some have referred to him as a “remarkable and open-minded leader” and the “unwavering standard bearer of economic reforms”.

However, some others, particularly liberal intellectuals, have dubbed Jiang an “ultra-left” leader who was anything but open-minded.

Given the conflicting opinions, is it really difficult for one to judge what kind of ruler Jiang actually was during his reign?

Well, the answer is definitely “no it’s not”.

I say this because I feel that by carefully studying three pieces of historical material, we can tell instantly what kind of leader Jiang was during his reign from 1989 to 2002.

The three pieces of material are: Jiang’s “July 1 speech” of 1991, the speeches Deng Xiaoping delivered during a visit to Shanghai in 1991 and his southern tour in 1992, and Huang Fuping’s detailed analysis of Deng’s speeches.

In this article I will focus on Jiang’s July 1 speech.

Jiang, who replaced Zhao Ziyang as general secretary of the party after the June 4 incident in 1989, delivered a speech on July 1, 1991 on an official occasion to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In the speech Jiang spelled out his leftist stance on several key issues concerning the party and the nation, and coined the term “counter-peaceful transformation” (反和平演變), which would become a phrase frequently used by officialdom and most mainland media in the following years.

Jiang said in his speech that China remained under a constant threat from hostile Western powers in the wake of the “political disturbance” in 1989. 

The Western powers, he said, were looking for every opportunity to subvert both the CCP and the Chinese government by means of “peaceful transformation”. The suggestion was that the foreign powers were plotting to topple the Beijing regime by infiltrating slowly into every aspect of society in China and secretly sponsoring domestic subversive forces.

In face of such a threat, the party should stay vigilant against any attempt by the West to inflict “peaceful transformation” in China, Jiang said. Countering Western infiltration and subversion can be seen as a life-and-death issue for the nation.

In order to fight “peaceful transformation”, Jiang stressed that it was of utmost importance to reinforce “proletariat dictatorship” under the absolute leadership of the CCP in the country, and to tighten the party’s grip on ideology and basically every aspect of society.

In his speech Jiang also raised his infamous “family name issue” (姓資姓社問題), asserting that even though China was undergoing across-the-board economic reforms, “the family name of the People’s Republic should always remain socialism rather than capitalism”.

He also warned of the sinister threat of “bourgeois liberalization” during the course of economic reforms.

The “family name issue” would subsequently spark a fierce debate among intellectuals and party theorists in the mainland over whether the country should re-adopt centrally planned economy.

Jiang’s speech was delivered at a time when the political climate in the mainland was tense in the wake of the June 4 incident in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and a crackdown on dissent by authorities was in full swing.

In order to tighten control on society, Jiang ordered the formation of stability maintenance offices (維穩辦公室) at both central and provincial levels in order to keep the public under constant surveillance. He also followed Mao Zedong’s footsteps and enforced socialist education in rural villages to make sure the peasants were immune to any form of “ideological contamination”.

However, Jiang’s extreme leftist approach met with staunch disapproval among other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, who believed his measures could spoil paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s painstaking effort after 1978 to lift the country out of poverty.

It was said that even Deng, whose health had been continually deteriorating, was dismayed at Jiang’s leftist line. Hence, he undertook a southern tour in the summer of 1992 to prevent the country from regressing to the “commune era” of Mao Zedong.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 1.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version中文版]

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