Nobody knows how a politician’s popular image will evolve after their retirement. The outbreak of the Ukraine War abruptly brought Angela Merkel down from the pedestal. George W. Bush is remembered more favorably after Donald Trump started to wreak havoc in US politics and beyond. Likewise, the image of Jiang Zemin, for years a laughingstock to many, improved a lot lately.
Jiang Zemin was mocked for years. But now, after his death, his image appears much better than before.
When he was in power, he was not liked, particularly because of his flamboyant style. He spoke with rich gestures and dramatic facial expressions. He wrote poems; he played the piano; he conducted impromptu chorus and orchestra; he sang Peking Opera, Elvis Presley’s Love Me Tender, the Italian O sole mio and folk songs of ethnic groups in China; and he spoke words and sentences in many dialects and languages, including Cantonese, English, Russian, Japanese, Romanian, French, German, Spanish and Urdu. The list goes on.
Was he good at it? Sadly not. In a few of these, probably between beginner and intermediate levels. For the rest, beginner level or icebreaker level.
Then there was his rant to a Hong Kong journalist in 2000 when he felt cornered by a question hinting at the central government pre-deciding the result of the territory’s election of chief executive. His tantrum was arguably still the editor’s pick for the best in political theater in China, much more entertaining than Hu Jintao at the 20th Party Congress being led away.
Because of these peculiarities, Jiang was considered a buffoon at diplomatic events. Some found him simply embarrassing.
What made him more despicable was that he showed a clear desire to cling to power after his official showtime was over. People were fed up with retired old men pulling strings behind curtains. After he retired from the offices of Party General Secretary (2002) and President (2003), he managed to hang on as the chairman of the crucial central military committee, only relinquishing it two years later than in due course.
After that, he still exerted influence, mainly through his Shanghai Faction. He was also one of the key figures who eventually lifted Xi Jinping to the top in the battle for Hu Jintao’s successor in 2012.
However, after Hu Jintao’s robot-like performance and particularly after Xi Jinping’s hardline policies and determination to be the absolute supreme leader became blatantly obvious, people started to feel that after all, Jiang Zemin was not that bad.
Jiang came to power in 1989 in the aftermath of the bloody crackdown of the student movement. After a few years of appeasement to the elderly conservatives in the party, he responded positively to Deng Xiaoping’s galvanizing for more open-up and market-oriented economic reforms. He is the final decision-maker thrusting China into the global economic system by securing membership in the World Trade Organization.
He was not belligerent towards foreign countries and was keen to maintain good relationships with the United States and Europe. During his years in office, China increasingly opened to the outside world.
Domestically, society became more tolerant. Calls for social justice could be voiced. Liberal media organizations began to mushroom in big cities. A rudimentary civil society seemed to be emerging.
In his final years as the party secretary, he introduced the theory of Three Represents, which paved the way for the communist party’s potentially far-reaching transformation into representing not only the working class but also entrepreneurs and other social elites.
When he left the front political stage in 2002-2005, everything looked hopeful in China, despite rampant cronyism and corruption.
Jiang spoke like a normal, cultured person
All these make a sharp contrast to Xi, under whom China back-pedaled on all fronts, triggering fears of another Cultural Revolution and a war for Taiwan.
In terms of personal inclination, Jiang has some traits that distinguished him from the vast majority of Chinese leaders: Although Jiang himself was a lousy art performer and not great with foreign languages, he had a genuine love for art, literature, culture and knowledge, the good things. His taste was not bad. (Aside from his love for the movie Titanic, no one is perfect.) He had some real respect for writers, artists and intellectuals. And he was genuinely curious about the world.
In addition, he spoke and behaved like a real person: His style of talking was quirkily expressive, he laughed heartily, he showed his anger, he scratched his itchy ear in big strokes on the central stage in the Great Hall of People, and he dozed off when Hu Jintao delivered a lengthy, boring speech.
While Jiang received both traditional old-school education and four-year western style university education, the highest proper schooling Xi Jinping completed was elementary school. Schools were all suspended due to the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 when Xi was 13. He did go to Tsinghua University in the middle of the 1970s but Chinese universities back then were still in a state of half-paralysis.
It was not his fault, but all that has most likely taken a toll on Xi’s worldview. He has no interest in art and culture, although he famously presented stunningly long lists of great books he claimed to have read in formal speeches on foreign visits. Some super modern architectural works in Beijing were approved under Jiang, including the National Center for Performing Arts next to Tiananmen Square. When Xi rose to the top, he said China should stop allowing “bizarre buildings” to be built.
Xi’s speech style goes back to the dry style and lofty attitude typical for Chinese bureaucrats. His speeches are often interspersed by grassroots idioms as well as marred by the wrong pronunciation of characters.
When the difference between Xi and Jiang gradually became obvious, some people said they started to appreciate the latter. The affection is not exactly genuine. It is still pretty much a mockery, but that Jiang is more human, more open, and much funnier, this is something people can agree on.
However, they still have one striking thing in common: Both defended the rule of the Communist Party by any means. Whether Jiang was unhappy about what Xi did in the past decade is unknown. At least he did not seem to stand in the way. When needed, Jiang would show up at functions presided by Xi to show solidarity. Their relationship seemed to have been on good terms until the death of Jiang. So after all the real or fake nostalgia, Jiang was just the lesser of two evils.