Anything for Power: The Real Story of China’s Jiang Zemin
The full text of Anything for Power: The Real Story of Jiang Zemin is available here.
If it is fate that decides a person’s destiny, then it is also within the capacity of history’s design to arrange for a life to have shameful origins.
When Jiang Zemin attended talks with the Hubei provincial delegation during the Chinese Communist Party’s meeting of the People’s Congress on March 12, 2003, he said, “I was the director of the Wuhan Institute for Boiler Research from 1966 to 1970. That was during the Cultural Revolution… the rebel faction [sic] carefully examined my personal dossier. That’s fine, as it proved that I have a clean record.”
Perhaps Jiang’s audience didn’t understand what his purpose was. Why would Jiang—the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—need to vindicate himself and his “clean record”?
The reason lies in Jiang’s personal history being questionable. His biological father, Jiang Shijun (also known as Jiang Guanqian), was a traitor who worked for the Japanese during their occupation of China. The university Jiang Zemin attended, Nanjing Central University, was in fact run by the Japanese occupation. He made up the lie that his uncle had adopted him, even though his uncle was actually deceased by that time. While in Russia for training, Jiang at one point indulged in an affair with a Russian woman and became a spy for the KGB. And this is only a small part of a much larger picture, for Jiang’s is a history full of ugly details. On what grounds could he lay claim to a “clean record”? When the “rebel faction” examined Jiang’s dossier they could not have known the tremendous troubles of Jiang’s past that were being hidden.
In 2005 with much fanfare Jiang Zemin launched the book The Man Who Changed China, a biography, published in both English and Chinese, that he commissioned an American businessman, named Robert Kuhn, to write. The book represented Jiang’s public attempt to gloss over the personal history he has long been hiding.
The fact that Jiang “doth protesteth too much” is telling. In the flattering prose that makes up Jiang’s biography one notices that one word in particular stands out for its frequency: patriotic. The section depicting his time attending the Japanese-occupied Nanjing Central University was, curiously enough, titled “I Am a Patriot.” Yet patriotism is a matter of civic duty and almost something innate, a loyalty toward the land that nurtures you. A person with a clean record hardly needs to make a public showing of his patriotism.
The simple fact is that Jiang’s biological father defected and worked for the Japanese occupation. In the latter half of Jiang’s life—even as told by the biography he asked others to write—Jiang was quick to avoid talking about his father. The only thing mentioned in his biography is that, “Jiang’s father died in 1973.”
Jiang falsely stated that he was adopted at the age of thirteen by the family of his uncle, CCP member Jiang Shangqing; but that would have put Jiang’s adoption shortly after, of all things, the uncle had passed away. Jiang Zemin graduated from college at the age of twenty-one. Then it reasons to ask: who supported Jiang between the ages of thirteen and twenty-one? Jiang Shangqing’s daughter, Jiang Zehui, told Kuhn that their family lived in “unending want and deprivation.”  If that were the case, then who paid the costly tuition necessary for Jiang Zemin to attend a privileged high school and then Nanjing Central University? Who paid for his study of the arts and music during tumultuous, war-torn years that witnessed enormous inflation? Who made it possible for him to drive a jeep so soon after graduating from college (as alluded to by Kuhn)? In other words, who else but his biological father could have reared him? Could Jiang Shangqing, who had passed away some eight years earlier, really have assumed such a role?
The reality is that Jiang Zemin’s life had nothing to do with his supposed foster family. It wasn’t until after the CCP took control of China that Jiang suddenly “remembered” having a CCP martyr (his uncle) in the family. He invented a past in which he abandoned his biological father and became the foster child of a deceased man. However, to this part of the story we will have to return later.
The above is not meant to imply that a person’s character or worth is the mere product of his family background. Instead, it is to suggest that we can begin to uncover Jiang Zemin’s deceptiveness by examining his largely fabricated and hidden background, as well as his past. In recent years Jiang has taken things further and hinted that his father—a traitor—was instead a hero for his part in fending off the Japanese troops. In the words of his cousin, Zehui, “My family were all revolutionaries,”  “The Jiang men were away at war,”  and “all went out to join the revolution, fighting both the Japanese invaders and the Chinese Nationalists.”  For the reader in China who knows not the details of Jiang’s family background, such statements very easily mislead.
The official mouthpiece of China’s CCP government, The People’s Daily, reported on December 11, 1999, that Jiang Zemin and then-Russian leader Boris Yeltsin signed in Beijing three Sino-Russian border agreements. Yet incredibly the meeting finds no mention in Kuhn’s biography, while trivialities like where and when Jiang sang a certain song and insignificant details about meetings with other prominent leaders are included. Why did Kuhn omit a national meeting as important as the signing of a border agreement with Yeltsin? As it turns out, at that meeting Jiang gave diplomatic recognition to each and every unfair treaty dating back to the end of the Qing Dynasty—treaties that no former Chinese government had agreed to. What Jiang signed was an outright traitor’s agreement that forfeited the legal grounds by which later generations might have reclaimed the lost land. The agreement submissively gave to Russia over 1 million square kilometers of fertile soil—land over thirty times the size of Taiwan. Seeing that a growing force of Chinese around the world sought to hold him accountable for selling out the country, Jiang Zemin tried to boldly rewrite his past. Little did he realize how self-defeating the maneuver would prove.
In his book, Jiang packages himself as a caring leader who was deeply concerned with the lives and suffering of the Chinese people. But consider for a moment what Jiang was doing during the massive flooding that hit China in 1998. In early September, when countless people were battling the flood and on the verge of death, Jiang invited actors and actresses to a party at the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing. Kuhn described it as, “Jiang Zemin’s idea of a good time.” At the get-together Jiang sang duets with a female singer old-time Russian love songs such as “Moscow Nights.”  We are told that in a burst of excitement he joined the crowd in singing “The Ocean Is My Home.” Kuhn elaborates that it was “especially Jiang” who was seized by the moment, seeming “devoid of artistic inhibitions.”  How ironic. While China’s people were desperately fighting surging, ocean-like floods, Jiang was off singing “The Ocean Is My Home” in the intimate company of women at Zhongnanhai. Sadly, it should come as little surprise that Jiang, a person willing to hide a background of treason in order to gain high-ranking posts, had little concern for the lives of his citizens.
In Kuhn’s work Jiang comes across as an exemplar of frugal living and the fight against corruption. Yet while the rise in corruption that has befallen China in recent years is well known, few realize that the root of the problem lies in none other than Jiang Zemin and his family. Thus it was that his sons, lacking in abilities and qualifications, managed to build Jiang’s family a wealthy empire. They are, one could say, “royally corrupt.”
It has long been rumored that Jiang went one snowy night to deliver a birthday cake to the mistress of China’s former chairman, Li Xiannian. Li had guests at the time, so Jiang waited outside for hours in a show of loyalty. The story is outright bizarre and couldn’t be substantiated. For some strange reason—perhaps a guilty conscience?—in his biography Jiang tries to defend his delivery of the cake, which actually serves only to confirm the odd story. Jiang tells his readers that he was caring towards his leadership and that the cake was “the last cake at the hotel.”  He also claims that his goal was reaching consensus and “building rapport with the right people.”  Supposing we accept that spin, then it is as good as saying China is free of corruption or bribery—isn’t every such act then just a matter of being “caring towards the leadership” or of “reaching consensus and building rapport”? That would amount to legitimizing corruption.
Jiang Zemin’s quick rise through the ranks of power was dependent upon two things. One was fabricating the story of his martyr-family background, which gained Jiang two political allies in Wang Daohan and Zhang Aiping; both would later promote Jiang time and again. Notably, the two were friends of Jiang’s uncle. The second was his ability to sweet talk superiors and gain favor with Party elders. It was ultimately these two traits that allowed Jiang to steal the throne.
After coming to power, Jiang Zemin sought the limelight, and thus began shenanigans like dancing and singing during international diplomatic exchanges. That such antics fly in the face of diplomatic protocol and betray the dignity of China seems far removed from Jiang’s mind. It was through this, the sapping of China’s honor, that Jiang won the nickname of “the clown.” During one meeting with the King of Spain, he took out a comb and proceeded to groom himself, oblivious to all onlookers. On one occasion when he was to be given a medal, he couldn’t wait and snatched the medal, adorning himself with it. Once, in the middle of a state dinner, he suddenly invited the first lady of a foreign nation to dance. He sprung from his chair to sing “O Sole Mio,” and struck up a piano tune, fixing his lustful eyes on the misses. His clowning made him something of a laughingstock in the Western press. Or just consider his meetings with former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Jiang visited the United States in 1993 and 1997, and Clinton visited China in 1998. Every time they met, Jiang played some musical instrument or went into song. After performing he would each time ask Clinton to play the saxophone, which Clinton, tellingly, declined despite being a virtuoso. In 1997, during Jiang’s visit to the United States, a journalist raised the matter of Tibet at a press conference. Jiang abruptly launched into a rendition of “Home on the Range,” much to his audience’s bewilderment. Classic Jiang is the former leader’s frequent recitation of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Be it talking to students, doing interviews with the press, or even when making foreign visits, Jiang finds occasion for reciting the Address. When asked, he obediently recites it; when not asked, he recites it all the same. Hardly can the figure of a nation’s sovereign be made out here.
Still more absurd is Jiang’s obsession with speaking foreign languages. In advance of a visit to Latin America, Jiang—disregarding his age and to the neglect of important national affairs—spent several months taking an intensive Spanish language class. Jiang went about it like a clown who, placed accidentally on a throne, could do little to change his showy nature. In the Chinese version of his biography, he reasons, “If you can’t communicate with another person because of differences in language, how can you exchange ideas or reach agreement?” Yet common sense dictates that clumsy foreign language skills would hardly be enough to allow Jiang more expressive or dynamic exchanges. Many heads of state speak their respective native tongues and employ an interpreter. Is that to say they can’t come to agreements in their diplomatic exchanges?
Owing perhaps to the leaders of Communist nations typically being conservative, many Western leaders consider this “excitable” Jiang Zemin a different Party breed and find his performances most amusing.
Leaders with real talent and great vision don’t waste their time and energy on such antics. The reason Jiang Zemin is so chirpy and “excitable” has to do with his abilities being as scant as those of the stooge in some vaudeville show. Western politicians have rolled out the red carpet for Jiang not so much for his talents as for the contracts in his pocket and the prospects of tapping China’s vast consumer market. China’s recent economic progress was driven by over $500 billion worth of foreign investment combined with a remarkably industrious—and cheap—labor force. With such massive investment, cheap labor, and so many talented Chinese people involved, of course production is high. But this is not to Jiang’s credit. To the contrary, Jiang’s incompetence, imperiousness, envy, and political conservatism have resulted in the cessation of political reform in China along with a decline in moral values and rampant corruption. The outcome is that whatever economic progress has been made, it has been at the cost of tremendous resources and to the detriment of the ecology, the environment, and society itself. Actually, China’s superficial economic prosperity has come at the huge expense of environmental sustainability. Jiang has harmed the nation’s future, put China’s political reform on hold or even set it back, and drove to new heights human rights abuses and the lack of freedom of belief. To put it in historical context, Jiang’s reign will ultimately be seen as scandalous; so great are the debts he has incurred to China’s people.
As Jiang would have Kuhn depict him, he is something of a talented problem solver. But as facts would have it, whenever a crisis came about—be it floods, the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, democratic elections in Taiwan, or the SARS epidemic—Jiang always pushed others to the frontline and cowardly stayed in the back. When SARS was spreading in Beijing, Jiang so cravenly feared for his life that he fled to Shanghai for refuge. But in the Chinese version of his biography, he claims that he “had been staying in Shanghai all along,” so as to cover for his escape. Truth be told, just days before his flight Jiang was in Beijing to speak at the People’s Congress and the People’s Political Consultative Conference. What grounds has he to use “staying in Shanghai all along” to exonerate himself?
When he is not building up his own political faction or traveling about to sing and show off, what Jiang Zemin has set his heart on and takes to be most urgent is persecuting the Falun Gong. While the outside world might well know that Jiang went so far as to distribute pamphlets that denounced Falun Gong at diplomatic meetings, few are aware of Jiang’s quick response to the interception of TV signals by several Falun Gong practitioners. On March 5, 2002, Falun Gong practitioners intercepted cable TV programs on eight different channels in Changchun city and aired forty-five minutes of information on the persecution of their group. In recalling that evening, Kuhn’s book quotes a close friend of Jiang in Changchun. The friend said that ten minutes after the TV interception had ended (at 9:10 p.m.) a furious Jiang Zemin called and said, “Falun Gong practitioners are broadcasting on Changchun’s cable system!” “Who is your city’s Party secretary or mayor?”  Jiang’s quick response to the incident—which happened in a city far from Beijing—and his prompt attempt at intimidating the municipal Party committee secretary suggest that Jiang has indeed been the mastermind of the Falun Gong’s persecution; that he has received direct briefings on the affair; and that it has been he that issues orders. By contrast, when the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was bombed, Jiang Zemin was for days nowhere to be seen.
In his biography Jiang tries to speak in his own defense, with his main device being to quote himself so as to project whatever image he fancies, in turn beautifying things. Yet which Chinese official who has been convicted of corruption hasn’t claimed at many a meeting that he “fights corruption”? Actions speak much louder than words. How true this holds for a sweet-talking, fancy-singing figure like Jiang Zemin.
Jiang’s lack of filial respect to his biological father, his lack of loyalty to his organizations, and his lack of honesty with the people render him “unkind, unjust, undignified, unwise, and untrustworthy”  —a clown who has brought disaster to the nation of China. To allow the likes of a Jiang Zemin to inflate himself by rewriting history is a disservice to posterity.
Jiang’s biography, you could say, parallels his life: it is riddled with lies and rife with contradictions.
If we are to be a generation that bears witness to history, returning to history the real Jiang Zemin is a responsibility we must not shirk.
The Table of Contents for Anything For Power follows.