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Society & Culture

Jiang Zemin’s Diplomatic Legacy

Dec 28, 2022
  • Yu Sui

    Professor, China Center for Contemporary World Studies

During his 13 years of leading China, from 1989 to 2002, Jiang Zemin visited more than 70 countries, traveling some 600,000 kilometers and painting a bold stroke on China’s diplomatic canvas with his distinctive demeanor.

It is widely known that Jiang faced a slew of severe challenges after being picked to serve as general secretary of the Communist Party of China in June 1989. Externally, the fall of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe delivered a seismic shock to China. His proper handling of the upheaval, however, protected China’s national security and kept its economy on the fast track of development that had sprung from the diplomatic policy guidelines of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping — “observe calmly, hold one’s ground, soberly respond” — but it also revealed Jiang’s ability to master the overall scheme of things. His array of achievements in China’s international engagement were rooted in his widely acclaimed diplomatic style.

To begin with, he always thought big as he got things done. He presided over the founding of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization by seeking sincere cooperation with Russia and other neighboring countries. The “Shanghai spirit” to which the intergovernmental organization adheres — mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for diversity of civilizations and pursuit of common development — has had far-reaching influence. The SCO has now become an important platform to propel the development of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Jiang also oversaw the return of Hong Kong and Macau, both cases serving as paradigms for resolving historical leftovers peacefully. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement expressing condolences on Jiang’s passing that he’d never forget the excellent cooperation he enjoyed as prime minister of Portugal with Jiang to ensure the smooth transition of Macau’s handover to China.

Under Jiang’s leadership, the Chinese mainland and Taiwan reached the 1992 Consensus — an agreement on the existence of only one China. In 1995, he put forward eight proposals to develop cross-strait relations and push forward the peaceful reunification process, which elicited strong reactions.

During his tenure, China joined the World Trade Organization in December 2001 after strenuous efforts, opening a new chapter in the country’s economic engagement with the rest of the world. In July that year, China succeeded in its bid to stage the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Jiang’s handling of major-power relations was highly commendable. On his initiative, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council held the millennium summit in New York in 2000. How he dealt with Russia and the United States was a story told with great relish.

China established a strategic partnership with Russia and signed the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, resting bilateral ties on a policy of “no alliance, no confrontation and no targeting third parties.” Partnership Over Alliance was a pioneering initiative in international relations based on which China has developed various kinds of strategic partnerships with more than 100 nations.

When former Taiwan leader Lee Teng-hui visited the U.S. in June 1995 and after NATO’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia in May 1999, Beijing dealt with Washington in a fair, reasonable and restrained way. After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the two sides began cooperating in the war on terror and maintaining a relatively normal relationship.

So it can be seen that Jiang was flexible while adhering to principles touching on China’s national interests. Resourceful, decisive and adept at pooling wisdom from the people, he proposed a series of new concepts, all full of vitality. He once incisively described the international situation as “overall peace and local warfare, overall relaxation and local tension, overall stability and local turbulence.” He said it was essential to abandon the Cold War mentality and adopt a new security concept. He believed that given the deepened interdependence in the security realm, only enhanced international cooperation would enable countries to tackle global security challenges effectively and achieve overall, sustained security.

He underlined the diversification of civilizations, pointing out that human societies could only realize progress through exchanges between different civilizations. Civilizations and social institutions of all kinds should coexist, learning from each other through competition and seeking common ground while reserving differences.

When the international situation took turns, Jiang invited scholars of international relations to share their opinions multiple times. I was one of them, sitting in front of him and speaking my views of the global landscape and making suggestions for China’s diplomatic policies. He listened very carefully, raised questions sincerely, and took notes from time to time. From his diplomatic practices, we could see that he had absorbed the insights of the experts and scholars.

In addition, Jiang was a genuine people person who was good at creating bonds with others. A country’s image is usually formed by the demeanor of its leaders, and Jiang’s open-mindedness, affability and gentleness on the world stage were widely known and praised.

He was a man of both arts and sciences. He always gave people a feeling that he was not merely a politician but a scholar of attainment. He could speak multiple languages in public. While visiting the Soviet Union in May 1991, he spoke in Russian with the workers at an auto factory at which he’d once worked, arousing laughter and cheering around him. In November 1997, his witty speech at Harvard University — half in Chinese, half in English — and his humor when answering questions from students drew round after round of applause. In a keynote speech in April 2001 on China-Latin America friendship in the new century at the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean during his visit to Santiago, Chile, he elaborated on China’s policy toward Latin America in Spanish.

On diplomatic occasions, Jiang often blended cultural elements, Chinese or foreign, such as playing the piano or the huqin, performing a ballroom dance or singing a piece of Peking opera. He was a charming and charismatic man, and even his political opponents were favorably disposed toward him. 

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