Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, who died Wednesday at the age of 96, managed to be underestimated for most of his life, despite rising to exalted heights. He was not considered an inspiring figure when Deng Xiaoping plucked him from Shanghai to run the government after the 1989 purge, and in accounts of the pivotal economic reforms of the 1990s he is often overshadowed by the charismatic and decisive Zhu Rongji.
Yet looking back, it seems clear that Jiang was responsible for establishing many of the basic political and economic contours of contemporary China. The best short summary of his legacy I have seen came from historian Frank Dikötter, in an interview earlier in November; the whole thing is worth reading but here is the key excerpt:
I think that we have been fooled by very superficial impressions of a man who occasionally comes across as something of a buffoon. He likes to burst in song; he has a smattering of foreign languages; it’s rather easy to mock him. But this is a man who really has made all the key decisions.
However you look at it, it is very much Jiang Zemin who has shaped the China we know today: the giant flagship conglomerates; the grip that the party has on the private sector; the shift towards much greater support for state enterprises; the determined effort to ward off any attempts at so-called ‘peaceful evolution’ [i.e., toward democracy]. The list goes on. A remarkable man, if I may say so.
There are two biographies of Jiang, both of them making a good case that he should not be underestimated. Bruce Gilley’s Tiger on the Brink from 1998 offered an early assessment of Jiang’s tenure from a journalist who was on the ground in China for it, while Robert Kuhn’s hagiographic The Man Who Changed China from 2004 has more of the flavor of an authorized biography, valuable mostly for the interviews he scored with Party insiders.
In my own notes on the history of the 1990s, I’ve been tempted to call the political economy that emerged the Jiang Zemin Consensus. Deng usually gets the credit for restarting economic reforms in 1992 after the conservative turn in 1989, and it does seem that Jiang was initially slow to figure out what Deng wanted.
But once he did, Jiang was able to establish a much more consistent direction than the contentious back-and-forth of the 1980s. Jiang forged an enduring elite consensus on two fundamental issues in China: the relationship between politics and economics, and the relationship between the state and the private sector.
With his formulation that China is a “socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics,” he managed to finally end the long-running ideological debate within the Communist Party over whether market economics could be consistent with a socialist (or more precisely Leninist) political system. Today, almost everyone in China accepts that both market forces and state planning can be deployed to achieve particular goals.
And with his two-track reforms to state-owned enterprises, Jiang reset the balance between the state and private sectors. Thousands of small or underperforming SOEs, mostly belonging to local governments were closed or privatized, reducing the fiscal burden on the government and enlivening the private sector. But the remaining SOEs were consolidated into larger entities and received more direct government supervision and support.
That balancing of interest groups has also proved remarkably durable: in purely quantitative terms, the share of economic value-added generated by the state and private sectors has hardly changed at all since the mid-1990s (see my piece Some Facts About China’s State Capitalism).
For all of Xi Jinping’s power and ambition, he hasn’t yet altered the basic tenets of the Jiang Zemin Consensus.