Speculation over the medical condition of former Chinese Communist leader Jiang Zemin continues unabated since a Hong Kong television station, ATV, broadcast an unattributed news story of his death on July 6. Jiang’s health has been thought to be in decline for some months, but when he did not make an appearance for the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist party on July 1, it was suspected that the 84-year old must be in his last days.
Shortly after the ATV report China’s state-controlled Xinhua news agency released a statement that “recent reports of some overseas media organizations about Jiang Zemin’s death from illness are pure rumor,” and attributed the information to “authoritative sources.”
Nonetheless, Reuters and other news agencies reported the claim of three sources with connections to the Chinese leadership that Jiang was being cared for in Beijing’s Military Hospital No. 301, the facility that is responsible for looking after the medical needs of the senior Chinese leadership.
Since these reports the tens of thousands of Chinese Internet censors employed by the state security apparatus have been working overtime. For a man who is supposedly not suffering any serious critical ailments, the Beijing powers that be sure seem to be anxious to quash any speculation to the contrary.
Searches on numerous subjects—not just the name “Jiang Zemin” itself but also anyone typing in the name of the Yangtze River (the surname Jiang means “river”) or the words “brain dead” or even the number of the hospital where he is being treated (“301”)—were all blocked.
There are three basic causes for this nervousness. One is that some of the “Shanghai mafia” that he brought into power with him are still in positions of great influence even though Jiang left most of his senior government posts in 2002. With Jiang dead, China’s current ruler, Hu Jintao, would be able to remove them and replace them with his own loyalists. Among them are Wu Bangguo, the number two man on the Chinese Politburo.
Hu has only 15 months left in power before he is to hand over the reins to his successor, Xi Jinping, and he has reasons to try and make his own mark on China’s future political life. One way he might do this is to “clean house” of those in the senior leadership who were swept into power along with Jiang in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Being the undisputed leader of China does not mean holding the office of “president,” a more or less ceremonial post. The real levers of power for the top man in China are being simultaneously the Communist Party General Secretary and also the Chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC). When Hu succeeded Jiang as the Party General Secretary the latter did not surrender all power at once. Jiang kept his post as Chairman of the CMC for two years after he had stepped down from his other leadership positions.
His refusal to leave the CMC position straightaway away angered some in Hu’s camp, and left the new leader with only half of the portfolio he needed to wield the full powers as head of state and party. Hu finally became the CMC chairman two years later, but this staggered succession meant that Hu had less than the full-blown support of the Chinese military.
All of which makes up the second reason that no one in China’s leadership wants a freewheeling discussion about Jiang’s legacy right now. There is speculation that Hu might follow in his predecessor’s footsteps and hold onto the CMC job for two years after he steps down as General Secretary. But, there is reason to believe that the rest of the Chinese leadership does not want history to repeat itself—with another “double-headed” leadership at a time of economic uncertainty inside and outside of China.
The third reason is the status of the Republic of China (ROC) on the island of Taiwan. When Jiang succeeded paramount leader Deng Xiaoping he was reportedly advised by the latter to “spend four out of five working days with the top brass.” Jiang proceeded to cultivate a close and mutually beneficial relationship with the Chinese military.
But these ties with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), plus the challenges to China’s posture in the international community created by the fall of the Soviet empire, the international political fallout from the Tiananmen Square massacre, the swift Allied victory in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm, and then the Kosovo bombing campaign eight years caused the Chinese leadership to shift its view of Beijing's position in the world.
“Up until the fall of communism, ideology was a prime driver of the official party line,” explained a long-time western analyst of Chinese politics. “But with the rise of the U.S. for a time as the ‘sole superpower’ Chinese leaders felt the need to make nationalism the center of gravity in its political education of the population and its foreign policy.”
Thus, during his tenure, Jiang gave the PLA the green light to conduct three separate military exercises that were as much about intimidating the Taiwanese leadership as they were about enhancing the force’s military preparedness. This brought about “ups and downs” in relations between the ROC and the PRC in the words of Taiwan's former Deputy Secretary General Chang Jung-kung.
When Hu became president he inherited a political time bomb in that Jiang had created a nearly concrete deadline for the takeover of Taiwan. Some skillful maneuvering by Hu managed to defuse the hostility in the relationship—and has ultimately brought the two countries into the closest working relationship that they have ever enjoyed. In many ways he has succeeded in managing the Taiwan issue better than all of his predecessors.
But this climb down from a hard-line position on Taiwan has, in the opinion of some observers, cost Hu the full support of the military. Earlier this year the military conducted the first flight of a new, stealthy fighter aircraft, the Chengdu J-20, during the visit to Beijing by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The test, which appeared to be scheduled specifically to take place during Gates’s meetings with the Chinese leadership, embarrassed Hu in front of his American guest, particularly since from all indications the flight was conducted without his advance knowledge.
Jiang’s legacy is a troubled one, with his tenure having left a number of unresolved problems that the one-party regime still struggles with. No one in the Chinese leadership is particularly interested in a discussion of that legacy or—even worse—what it says about the dilemmas facing the nation today.
Reuben F. Johnson is an aerospace and defense writer based in Kiev. He writes frequently on Chinese political-military affairs.