Tiger on the Brink:

Jiang Zemin and China's New Elite

by Bruce Gilley

Jiang Zemin, as the President of China, will be leading the world's most populous country into the 21st century. A new biography of Mr. Jiang describes him as an economic reformer but not a political reformer and as someone often mistakenly believed to have blundered his way to power. Bruce Gilley is the author of the first western full-length study of the Chinese leader.

Author Bruce Gilley says while Jiang Zemin owes his appointment in 1989 as Communist Party leader to the late patriarch Deng Xiaoping, he made his own moves to consolidate power and establish his authority as China's unrivaled leader. The book, titled Tiger on the Brink: Jiang Zemin and China's New Elite, traces Mr. Jiang's rise to power and the policies he has pursued as party General Secretary and President of China.

Mr. Gilley says Mr. Jiang at first did not have a military or political power base, but he worked to build that support.

"Jiang has won over the military in a very sort of material way. He has raised budgets. He has put an emphasis on better equipment and better technology, and military people love toys and Jiang is, in a sense, playing to that desire. He's also I think instituted a kind of meritocracy in the military, which, I think by and large, is supported by the officers who know of a past in China when the military was very ridden with political factions and people trying to rout others."

To strengthen his political support system, Mr. Gilley says Mr. Jiang did not follow the style of his predecessors by trying to eliminate his opponents.

"Jiang, by contrast, rather smothers his enemies by bringing in more of his supporters and allowing the voices of his supporters to kind of drown out those of his enemies or those who view policy issues differently than himself. So, it means that he leads more by example rather than by trying to eliminate opponents, and I think that is one reason he's been very successful."

Bruce Gilley is a Canadian journalist who has worked in Hong Kong since 1992. He has made several trips into China and gathered information for this biography from primary documents and interviews as well as Chinese and international media sources.

Mr. Gilley says Jiang Zemin has distinguished himself from his mentor Deng Xiaoping by creating his own doctrine.

"Deng's single-minded focus was the economy -- reforming the economy, righting the wrongs of the past and trying to make the Chinese people a little better off. What Jiang has done is not to negate anything that Deng did on the economic front, but rather to bring back into the spotlight other issues such as morality, patriotism, fighting corruption in the party, raising educational levels of cadres."

Another important goal for President Jiang is the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland. Mr. Gilley says that issue is for Jiang Zemin what Hong Kong's return to China was for Deng Xiaoping. He says Mr. Jiang must come up with a new approach to reunification -- not just a refinement of past ideas.

An example, Mr. Gilley says, might be a loose confederation under a new name with Taiwan filling a vice presidency position, but with the island and the mainland each remaining basically autonomous.

"That's the sort of creative thinking that is required, and I think the window of opportunity is about from now until maybe 2001 or 2002, when that proposal has to come out of Beijing. And it will be a real litmus test for Jiang Zemin in terms of his significance as a leader."

Mr. Gilley says that will be a test of whether Jiang Zemin is able to get the remaining conservative elders in Beijing to agree to such a new policy toward Taiwan.

Regarding political reform, Mr. Gilley says westerners should not think of Jiang Zemin as someone who is going to oversee the dismantling of China's communist dictatorship. However, he says the Chinese president is willing to expand China's exchanges with the outside beyond the economic realm to include legal, military and educational issues. These, he says, will have an effect on China's political climate.

Mr. Gilley also says outsiders should not expect Mr. Jiang to try to change the verdict on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest movement -- which the party declared a counterrevolutionary rebellion. However, he says Mr. Jiang may try to make a distinction between what was seen as the correct decision to end the protests and the forceful method the army used.

"The point I try to make in the book is that there is a visible diversion of views between means and ends in Tiananmen. I think Jiang Zemin stands on the side which believes that while the end that was pursued on the night of June the 3rd -- that is to say, that the protests should be ended and the government had to take decisive action to end the protests -- believes that that decision was correct. However, I think he and several other leaders would beg to differ on the issue of the means that were used to achieve that -- that the use of lethal force was wrong and that China should have been better prepared to deal with social unrest, as other countries like South Korea are better prepared with non-lethal weaponry."

Mr. Gilley says Mr. Jiang may not be able to establish such a position before his term as party General Secretary ends in 2002, and he may have to wait until he has some kind of elder statesman position in the future.

Tiger on the Brink is a book that looks at issues and decisions in contemporary China, but it does not judge the personalities for their actions. The book has received praise from many China scholars in the United States and from Chinese studying overseas, but some readers have found fault with Mr. Gilley for not being critical of Jiang Zemin, as the leader of a party that has repressive policies and engages in human rights abuses.

In response, Mr. Gilley says he has written a book about Jiang Zemin, not about the Chinese Communist Party.

"In the post 1989 period, he certainly has been the person that China needed. And do I admire him? Well, I really don't judge him in this book. And some people have criticized me for that, but I view Jiang Zemin in this book from a very sort of cold, realistic approach, which is: Has he managed to stay in power? And has he offered policy initiatives which consolidate his power? And certainly the answer to both is 'Yes'."

Mr. Gilley says while Jiang Zemin may not be a great person, he is in power at a significant time for China. And he adds Mr. Jiang has been able to push China in a direction that Mr. Gilley believes offers good prospects for the country's future.

Tiger on the Brink: Jiang Zemin and China's New Elite is published by the University of California Press.

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