The Guardian • Issue #2036

Comrade Jiang Zemin: a retrospective

Jiang Zemin official photo. Photo: Government of People’s Republic of China – Public domain.

On the last day of November, 2022, Comrade Jiang Zemin died in Shanghai. He was 96 years old, and at the time of writing the whole of China is in mourning. All websites have been in black and white for a week, many non-essential activities and meetings have been postponed, and a funeral committee is overseeing all activities. On 6th December, I listened to the memorial meeting in the Great Hall of the People. Standing before Jiang Zemin’s coffin, Xi Jinping spoke of his contribution to the CPC and China’s socialist development. Except for the frail, all stood while listening.

Jiang Zemin was General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) from 1989 to 2002. When reading through the many Chinese sources published over the recent days, one is struck by the following: first, Jiang Zemin and the CPC steered China through some major crises; second, at the same time they guided the country to some very comprehensive achievements; and third, there is a remarkable continuity from Jiang Zemin’s time as CPC General Secretary until today. Before dealing with these points, I will provide a sketch of Jiang Zemin’s life. It goes without saying that the reader should avoid the ill-informed, ignorant, and at times malicious pieces from the usual suspects among the Western media.


Jiang Zemin was born on 17th August, 1926. Think for a moment of what times they were. The CPC had been established only five years earlier, and Mao Zedong and the other young communists were barely out of their 20s. China was at a very low ebb, was riven with civil war, and life expectancy was only 33 (now, life expectancy in China is higher than the USA). By the time Jiang was in middle (primary) school, his home town of Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, was overrun by Japanese imperialist forces seeking to conquer and colonise China.

During the later 1930s and early 1940s, Jiang was involved in anti-imperialist activities while studying electrical engineering in Nanjing. After the defeat of the Japanese invaders in 1945, he was able to move to Shanghai to continue his studies. By 1946, he had developed a Communist world outlook and joined the CPC. Until liberation in 1949, he carried out underground Party work behind Kuomintang lines. By day, he was a factory engineer, and at night he was a Communist agitator and educator. As Shanghai was about to be liberated in 1949, Jiang organised the workers into factory protection units so as to preserve the factory for its role in the New China.

After liberation, Jiang worked in a range of factories, from food processing to soap manufacture, before finding his role as a leader in technological development and electrical engineering. He joined and then led a number of delegations to other socialist countries to learn about their technological and industrial developments. By 1982, at the CPC’s Twelfth National Congress, he was elected to the CPC Central Committee. In 1985, Jiang was appointed mayor of Shanghai. Here, he began the process of turning the port-city into what it is today: a world-leading economic and technological centre, and one of the busiest ports in the world.


Jiang Zemin was elected into the role of General Secretary of the CPC at a moment of deep crisis. In the spring and summer of 1989, the world’s first “colour counter-revolution” was attempted in China at the instigation of hostile external forces. Internationally, the world socialist movement was facing its most significant setback: the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had lost its way, opportunists had risen in the ranks (Gorbachev and others), and Party unity had dissipated. In socialist countries of eastern Europe, a series of counter-revolutions were taking place, and by 1991 the Soviet Union itself was no more. Not a few thought China would go the same way. It was not to be.

At the Fourth Plenary Session of the CPC’s Thirteenth Central Committee, Jiang Zemin was elected as General Secretary. This was very much a crisis meeting, at the height of the turmoil. Deng Xiaoping was in his 90s, and China needed a steady hand to keep China on the socialist road. Jiang Zemin was precisely that steady hand.

By the time of the CPC’s Fourteenth National Congress (October 1992), stable transitions in leadership had been established. Not only was Jiang Zemin elected to the Central Committee and the Politburo, but he was also elected as General Secretary again. Importantly, at the National People’s Congress held in March 1993, Jiang Zemin was nominated and elected as chairman (in English “president”) of the PRC, as well as of the Central Military Commission. With re-election in 1997, he would hold these positions until 2012, when he offered to retire. It is to Jiang Zemin’s credit that he established a stable process of transition that is continued today.

The 1990s were a time of learning from the mistakes of the Soviet Union and eastern European socialist countries. Many were the in-depth studies and debates as to what was needed in China, especially since world socialism was at a low ebb. Jiang Zemin summarised what was needed in two points: resolutely adhere to socialism; and follow a path of socialist reform and development that is attuned to the concrete realities of China.


For China’s development, Jiang Zemin and the CPC faced a formidable task: implementing the reform and opening-up begun by Deng Xiaoping. In many respects, they were on a road that no one had followed before. A major feature of this path is the “socialist market economy,” with common ownership as the mainstay and other forms of ownership alongside. Many were the misunderstandings at the time within China and internationally, and not a few thought that China was embarking on the “capitalist road” and the path of “bourgeois liberalisation.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Like Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin was resolute in ensuring that China kept to the socialist road, upheld the dictatorship of the proletariat, the leadership of the Communist Party, and Marxism-Leninism along with Mao Zedong Thought. These are, of course, the “Four Cardinal Principles.” I cannot go into the details here as to how the socialist market economy came to work within China’s socialist system, except to point out that it is one component of that system. China never gave up on the planned economy, but – after a few bumps – has managed to develop far more effective planning precisely through the interaction with the socialist market economy.

We can see the result today. It was Jiang Zemin at the core of the CPC who set China on its extraordinary trajectory of development. This is known as socialist modernisation, which is quite distinct from capitalist modernisation. This comprehensive modernisation has taken place over decades rather than centuries, includes 1.4 billion people, and has been managed in an overall stable way. When contradictions – some quite serious – have arisen, there has been a notable ability to resolve the contradiction and move forward. By now, the modernisation of more people than in all developed countries combined is having a profound influence around the world – especially in other developing countries.

Of the many international achievements, the most significant is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). As former mayor of Shanghai, this was one of Jiang Zemin’s major international policy initiatives, and after much planning in the 1990s the SCO was established in June of 2001. Having grown into what it is today, with many Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and African countries seeking to join, the SCO is instrumental in the qualitative changes taking place in the world today.


The risk in focusing on Jiang Zemin is that it may seem like the work of one human being who influenced history. Instead, we should always remember that the CPC has a collective leadership with the General Secretary at the core. Further, Jiang Zemin’s contribution is in significant continuity with those who went before him – Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping – and those who were to follow – Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping.

Let us take the example of economic development. Jiang Zemin is often seen as one with a single focus: economic development as the foundation of the country’s strength, unity, and ability to repel imperialist interventions. As one trained in the sciences and technology, he did emphasise economic development, especially since China was still a relatively poor and weak country when he was elected General Secretary. But this is also a one-sided picture: Jiang stressed again and again the need for all-round development, in terms of economic, political, and cultural development, or what is also expressed as the need for development in both material and “spiritual” aspects (here “spiritual” means culture in a much fuller sense). This comprehensive concern we find even more today with Xi Jinping.

Politically, Jiang Zemin emphasised the need to develop and strengthen China’s socialist democracy and rule of law. He rolled up his sleeves to begin the long task of improving and consolidating electoral, consultative, and grassroots democracy, as well the mechanisms for democratic supervision, management, and socialist human rights and freedoms. He oversaw significant revisions to the minority nationalities preferential policies, ensuring greater autonomy as the key to the country’s unity. Picking up Deng Xiaoping’s emphasis on the need to find a way to establish a distinctly socialist rule of law, Jiang oversaw both significant debates in the 1990s concerning this question and the beginning of a process that is now coming to fruition with Xi Jinping and the practice of “ruling the country according to the rule of law.” Perhaps the best example is the rule-of-law solution to the “Hong Kong Storm” of 2019-2020.

Many are the other continuities, such as modernising the People’s Liberation Army so that it can adequately protect a socialist country, a comprehensive social security system, ensuring that China is treated internationally as an equal, the need for constant innovation, and emphasising the policy of establishing a moderately prosperous (xiaokang) society by 2021. In Jiang’s time, these policies were in their beginning stages, but we have seen them carried out in the decades that were to follow.

To be added here is the long process of reunifying the whole country, as the last step of the revolutionary struggle. Indeed, it was Jiang Zemin who was present at the return of Hong Kong in 1997 and Macao in 1999. He was not to see a resolution of the Taiwan question, but he did manage the significant “1992 Consensus” between China and the USA. Importantly, Jiang stressed peaceful reunification, and that if force was needed as a last resort it would not be directed at the Chinese compatriots of the island but at foreign forces trying to interfere with China.

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