Most Westerners know about Jiang Zemin through Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s biography “Man Who Changed China: The Life and Legacy of Jiang Zemin.” Now that Jiang is gone, it’s time to evaluate his legacy to see how he changed China.
Jiang ruled China for 13 years from 1989 to 2002, including 11 years as the paramount leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the state, and the military. To keep the new leadership under his control after his retirement from the Party and the state, he extended his position as the chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the head of the Party’s military, for two more years. After that, Jiang oversaw Hu Jintao’s ruling from behind the scenes for another eight years.
In that sense, he was the second longest ruler in communist China, after only Mao Zedong, the regime’s first leader.
Every CCP paramount leader has his own legacy. Mao is the founder of the People’s Republic of China; his legacy is the theory and practice of “Continuing Revolution” (繼續革命). Deng Xiaoping’s legacy is “Reform and Openness,” as well as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
What is Jiang’s legacy? One is “Rule by Corruption”(腐敗治國). Another is the persecution of Falun Gong. According to He Qinglian, a China expert, economist, and author of “The Pitfalls of Modernization,” one of three keywords to describe the Jiang era is corruption.
When Jiang was handpicked by Deng and other elder leaders, it was a surprise to everyone, including Jiang himself. Compared to previous Party leaders, Jiang didn’t have revolutionary war exploits. He was just the Party secretary of Shanghai, ready to retire. He didn’t have his own faction, not even allies in the Party.
During his first several years in power, he still had Deng and other Party elders to look after or restrain him. But when Deng and others faded out of the picture, Jiang needed to find his own way to rule the country. The best and easiest way to build his authority was by “promoting corruption” and “selective anti-corruption to eliminate his adversary.” That’s exactly what he did.
Giving Corruption a Green Light
Jiang promoted the goal of “getting rich.” A well-known motto of Jiang’s is: “Silently get rich. This is the best.”(悶聲大發財，這是最好的) He made this comment in the middle of a speech to a group of Hong Kong reporters. It was out of the blue and off-topic, but reflected his real thoughts and values.
Reforms Designed to Benefit the Powerful
Under Jiang’s rule, state properties fell into the hands of powerful Party leaders' families. A typical case is Shandong Luneng Group, which owns the Shandong Taishan Football Club. The company was the subject of a long investigative report by Caixin magazine, a Chinese business publication, in 2007.
Luneng was a state-owned enterprise in northeast China’s Shandong Province. Its business covered coal, electricity, mining, real estate, finance, and sports. Until the end of 2005, Luneng was the No. 1 enterprise in Shandong, worth 73.8 billion yuan ($9.22 billion in 2006). The ownership changed to employee-owned from state-owned in 2002. Then, in 2006, after secret backroom dealings, the ownership changed again. This time, to privately owned from employee-owned.
Two companies from Beijing obtained a 91 percent stake in the firm, but nobody knew who was behind those two companies. It was reported that the real person who bought Luneng was Zeng Wei, the son of Zeng Qinghong, Jiang’s right hand. Zeng Wei later bought a $32 million mansion in Sydney, Australia.
There were many rounds of state-owned enterprise reform, and every time, the reform was accompanied by the loss of fortune from the state to benefit powerful people. As an example, a Chinese state-run media report showed that one state property worth 100 million yuan was valued at only 1.25 million yuan for a private buyer.
As for China’s high-ranking officials, it’s hard to know how many were corrupt.
During Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign that commenced in 2012, Zhou Yongkang, former security tsar and former member of the Politburo Standing Committee—the CCP’s highest-level decision-making body—was convicted of three crimes. One of them was accepting huge bribes, which alone led to a life sentence in prison.
His son, Zhou Bin, was sentenced to 18 years in prison and a 350 million yuan ($50 million) fine for bribery and other crimes. There was a joke in China that Hu Jintao, the CCP leader under Jiang’s shadow, was so surrounded by bad guys that he was literally fighting behind enemy lines. Both of his vice chairmen of the CMC were charged with corruption: Guo Boxiong was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, while Xu Caihou died in the hospital before the trial.
Hu’s security force head Zhou Yongkang was a bad guy. Ling Jihua, Hu’s office director, also was a bad guy. The Ministry of Public Security was full of bad guys. It’s a miracle that Hu survived Xi’s anti-corruption sting at all.
The Jiang faction has two groups. The core members of his faction are the ones who have blood on their hands during the persecution of Falun Gong, while the general members are those who have benefited from Jiang’s policies—mostly corrupted officials. The core members of the faction were given more opportunities to engage in graft.
When Xi began his anti-corruption campaign, the first targets were the officials from the political and legal system. They weren’t charged with human rights abuses; all of them were charged with corruption and other crimes.
More than half of the former heads of the notorious 610 Offices at the state level were investigated, tried, and sentenced to jail terms. They have one charge in common: bribery. Li Dongsheng, Zhang Yue, Fu Zhenghua, and Sun Lijun, just to name a few. All of their crimes can be traced back one or two decades during the Jiang era (since Hu was under Jiang’s shadow, he hardly had his own era). None of their crimes were exposed for decades because Jiang needed them to do his dirty work, and letting them get rich through graft was the reward.
The corruption of the ruling class was so widespread and notorious that the United States and other Western firms were competing to hire “princelings,” the sons and daughters of high-ranking Chinese officials so they could use them as a key to open and secure the lucrative China market.
In 2016, JP Morgan agreed to pay $264 million US to settle charges that it employed well-connected Chinese princelings in order to win business in China. And JP Morgan isn't the only one. While such corporate scandals received much scrutiny in the West, it failed to take into account the China side of the equation. China’s corruption was so endemic that it made such egregious bribery both necessary and possible. And it existed long before the JP Morgan scandal; such practices had been around for at least two decades, mostly during the Jiang era.
Paired with corruption, Jiang used another strategy, selective anti-corruption efforts, to get rid of his adversaries. Chen Xitong, former CCP Beijing secretary, was most likely to be promoted to replace Zhao Ziyang, the CCP general secretary who was purged for not supporting the crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
Chen was Beijing's mayor during the 1989 student protest. Later, he became the Party secretary of the city. Due to his achievements in Beijing and the role he played in the bloody suppression of the student protests, Chen always thought he was superior to Jiang. Jiang also considered Chen his biggest enemy. When the time was right, Jiang finally put Chen in jail for corruption charges.
Unlike other corrupt high-ranking officials, Chen never admitted the charges against him. He claimed that he was the victim of political persecution, with which many agree.
In most countries, corruption is something hard to avoid and needs to be fought all the time. Under Jiang’s rule, it was a purposeful design promoted from the very top. It was not only the grease for China’s economic development but also the key component that secured Jiang's political power.
Yes, Jiang did change China—for the worse.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.