Chinese Top Leadership Changes as Jiang Zemin Takes the Party Chair Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Characterized by booming economic growth, greater opening to the West, and attempts to eliminate the wide gap between rich and poor, Jiang Zemin’s rule in China nonetheless maintained the strict social and political controls of the central government and undertook numerous measures aimed at strengthening the Chinese state, both domestically and internationally.

Summary of Event

Jiang Zemin emerged on the stage of Chinese national politics as a result of the Tiananmen crisis of 1989. As student demonstrations became increasingly virulent and forces opposed to the Communist Party united in expressing their frustrations, party officials sought a leader who could quell the disturbances and reestablish order. Jiang Zemin had effectively ended a similar crisis in Shanghai, where he had been mayor and leader of the Communist Party, by shutting down the World Economic Herald, a newspaper he declared to be a threat to public stability. Higher-level Communist officials, such as Deng Xiaoping, hoped that Jiang could halt the protests in Beijing just as neatly. By the use of force, which Deng had approved and Jiang then ordered, the Tiananmen protests came to a violent and abrupt end. Tiananmen Square massacre China;government [kw]Chinese Top Leadership Changes as Jiang Zemin Takes the Party Chair (July 28, 1989) [kw]Leadership Changes as Jiang Zemin Takes the Party Chair, Chinese Top (July 28, 1989) [kw]Jiang Zemin Takes the Party Chair, Chinese Top Leadership Changes as (July 28, 1989) [kw]Party Chair, Chinese Top Leadership Changes as Jiang Zemin Takes the (July 28, 1989) China;government [g]East Asia;July 28, 1989: Chinese Top Leadership Changes as Jiang Zemin Takes the Party Chair[07360] [g]China;July 28, 1989: Chinese Top Leadership Changes as Jiang Zemin Takes the Party Chair[07360] [c]Government and politics;July 28, 1989: Chinese Top Leadership Changes as Jiang Zemin Takes the Party Chair[07360] Jiang Zemin Deng Xiaoping

Jiang, who was seen as a conservative force and a successor to head the second generation of Communist leaders, was protected by Deng and slowly advanced through the upper ranks of the party, first by becoming general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, then chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Chinese Communist Party in 1989, and finally, in 1993, upon Deng’s official retirement, president of the People’s Republic of China. Even after his accession to the presidency, Jiang was still seen as a puppet of Deng and merely a transitional ruler. Over time, however, Jiang solidified his hold on power, especially through his skillful handling of powerful figures in the military and public security establishments.

During his rule, Jiang sought to strengthen the authority of the Communist Party while continuing to foster economic development. He began a vigorous campaign to return to ideological essentials by promoting numerous initiatives. In 1995, Jiang introduced his theory of the “seven major differentials,” which urged party cadres to study the “pure” forms of Marxism and Maoism and to distinguish them from the “bourgeois liberalization” of the West. In that same year, a similar initiative was undertaken within the ranks of the People’s Liberation Army, Jiang’s greatest ally. The chairman proclaimed a five-point edict urging the army to follow the proper political direction of the Communist Party and to shun Westernizing tendencies, which were seen as corrupting the purity of Chinese socialism.

Jiang also proposed his program of “talk more about politics,” by which people were to discern the truth of all matters according to the rules of Marxism-Leninism. This was part of Jiang’s broader 1996 campaign, which resulted in the passing of the “Resolution on the Construction of a Socialist Spiritual Civilization.” With this resolution, the Chinese people were to resist Western contamination of the arts and media by adhering more closely to nationalism, collectivism, and socialism. Citizens were to promote traditional Chinese values, study more Marxism, and live righteously. Chinese nationalism was to consist of independence and self-reliance.

To this end, Jiang labored intensively to reform the nation. He instituted broad anticorruption policies; attacked the previously invulnerable “princelings,” wealthy and corrupt children of party officials; sought to eliminate poverty; and attempted to lessen the gap between rich and poor. Jiang insisted, however, that all reforms be made on the party’s terms and in the party’s own good time. In 1996, he drew a careful distinction between his desire to expand “rule by law”—using laws, which were always subordinate to the party—to run the country, without falling into the error of “rule of law,” the Western aberration that viewed law as supreme, even over the state.

Under Jiang’s steady guidance, China’s economy expanded dramatically. In 1993, taking a lead from Deng, Jiang declared that China would pursue a “socialist market economy.” Under this initiative, numerous unproductive, state-owned enterprises were closed, leading to a temporary spike in unemployment. Jiang declared his new plan of the “three represents,” which urged three types of development: “advanced social productive forces” (to allow the extension of membership in the party to private entrepreneurs and professionals), cultural development, and representation of the majority of the people. These principles were later to be written into the constitution of the People’s Republic of China.

Jiang greatly supported special economic zones along the coast and oversaw the privatization of capital and the granting of equal rights to private industry. From 1989 to 2000, the nation’s annual real growth in gross domestic product averaged 9.7 percent, international foreign investment in China grew to be second only to that of the United States, and millions of Chinese experienced better living conditions.

In the realm of foreign policy, Jiang pursued an aggressive Chinese nationalism that actively reached out to governments the world over. He attempted to improve relations with Russia, oversaw the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, and, in the same year, participated in a highly productive state visit to the United States. In 1999, Macao was returned to Chinese sovereignty. Also in 1999, Jiang invoked Deng’s theory of “one country, two systems,” allowing for socialism and democratic capitalism—in the cases of Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, should the latter return to the control of the mainland—to coexist. Jiang also successfully navigated the difficult diplomatic waters stirred by the 1999 American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the 2001 collision of an American fighter jet with a Chinese military plane. While allowing limited social protest of these events in China, Jiang worked tirelessly behind the scenes to guarantee that Chinese-U.S. relations would remain strong.


Jiang’s legacy includes the return of Hong Kong to Chinese jurisdiction after one hundred years of British rule, the resurrection of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway project, the successful negotiation of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, the choice of Beijing as the site of the 2008 Olympic Games, a vast expansion of the Chinese military, the strengthening of foreign ties, and the attainment of an economic and cultural rapprochement with Taiwan. Critics assert that Jiang’s legacy includes greater governmental repression (such as the full-scale suppression of the Falun Gong sect beginning in 1999), an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, economic development at the cost of massive ecological degradation, a decline in government support of health care, and the enhancement of Jiang’s personality cult.

Jiang was frequently criticized by opponents, even during his time as mayor of Shanghai, for seeking too much media attention, and he was labeled by local critics as a “flower pot”: “something beautiful to look at, but useless.” For many, Jiang was the first of Communist China’s leaders to manipulate the media actively and effectively, through his numerous press conferences, insistence on nightly national news coverage of the government’s activities for the first five minutes of the broadcast, and hokey musical solos and attempts to speak foreign languages. To others, he made a sincere attempt to reach beyond his nation’s borders in order to create a stronger, more stable China and a better, more secure world. China;government

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cavalli, Dimitri, ed. The Reference Shelf: China. New York: H. W. Wilson, 2002. Sourcebook with a wide range of information concerning China up to the time of its printing. Frequent references to Jiang, while brief, provide a comprehensive view of the president and the effects of his policies, both nationally and internationally.
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    xlink:type="simple">Kuhn, Robert Lawrence. The Man Who Changed China: The Life and Legacy of Jiang Zemin. New York: Crown, 2004. An extensive biographical study of the life and times of Jiang. Criticized by various scholars as uncritical and presenting too positive an image of Jiang, the book still contains a wealth of information and personal commentary by various members of Jiang’s inner circle, as well as copious periodical and official testimony.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lam, Willy Wo-Lap. The Era of Jiang Zemin. Singapore: Prentice Hall, 1999. Insightful study of Jiang Zemin’s rule by one of the foremost sinologists in the world, who is often touted as the preeminent “China watcher” of our times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tien, Hung-mao, and Yun-han Chu, eds. China Under Jiang Zemin. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2000. Collection of essays by American and Chinese scholars that examine Jiang’s personal contributions to Chinese governance; his influence on the Chinese military, national economic policy, and foreign relations; and various issues of regionalism, nationalism, and globalism.
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    xlink:type="simple">Wong, John, and Zheng Yongnian, eds. China’s Post-Jiang Leadership and Succession. Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2002. Extensive study of Jiang’s contributions as president of the People’s Republic of China. Summarizes his legacy to the leaders who followed him and situates Jiang in the broader context of those who have led the nation since its inception in 1949.

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Categories: History