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Society & Culture

What are Jiang Zemin’s Foreign Policy Legacies?

Dec 22, 2022
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin passed away on November 30, at the age of 96. 

Jiang left enduring marks on many aspects of modern China. In particular, his contributions towards the country’s international standing and foreign relations are certainly something from which present generations of diplomats and politicians across the world can draw invaluable insights. 

There are few better places to start with comprehending Jiang’s unique imprints on the foreign policy trajectory of contemporary China, than to examine the finer details of his approach to the Sino-American relationship. 

The start to Jiang’s tenure as the de jure leader of China (Deng had remained influential throughout the early 1990s) in 1989, coincided with a relative nadir in relations between Beijing and Washington. As a result of the political turbulence in which the country was enmeshed, a vocal chorus of critics in America gained traction with their portrayal of China as a pariah state with values that were fundamentally inimical to the West-led ‘international order’. 

By the end of his tenure in 2002, China had acceded to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The Sino-American relationship had warmed considerably. And the Chinese economy had commenced its astronomical expansion in size, diversifying away from being a purely production-and-manufacturing-led economy into one that was driven by a burgeoning technology and services sector. China had cultivated substantially greater influence in international institutions such as the UN and the IMF, as well as considerably improving its reputation in continental Europe. 

When picking out the strengths and positives of Jiang’s foreign policy legacy, there are three particular aspects worth examining in greater detail. 

The first, was his willingness and propensity to comprehend and tactfully draw upon the cultural resources, idiosyncrasies, and rituals of countries with whom China had sought to deepen diplomatic ties. Some examples of this capacity were relatively overt – on foreign visits, Jiang had a tendency to switch into the languages of his host countries where he was received (he delivered his speech at the Moscow State University in Russian). He would do the same when interviewed by foreign journalists – with his most pronounced interlocutor, perhaps, being Mike Wallace, with whom Jiang recited and shared a subtle appreciation for the Gettysburg Address. It helped, of course, that he was a polyglot. 

Yet there were also subtler demonstrations of his prowess on this front – consider, for one,  Jiang’s debating with American President Bill Clinton the finer nuances of governance systems and political order, live on TV; or, his trilingual berating of a Hong Kong journalist that – despite the-then commotion – had come to epitomise and endear him to many in the decade prior to his death; his bursting into a spontaneous rendition of Hawaiian classic Swanee River and a Chinese opera at a state banquet hosted by President Fidel Ramos in the Philippines. In so doing, Jiang humanised himself and the 1.4 billion people that he led to the eyes of foreign audiences sceptical of a rising China. By opting to strategically speak in the tongue of his audience, both literally and metaphorically, Jiang was able to mollify much of the animosity and reticence that confronted China. 

The second, was his willingness to make strategic concessions in exchange for the securing of the country’s overall interests, as well as fostering common grounds between China and prospective allies, rivals, even adversaries. Working in tandem with then-Premier Zhu Rongji, who had served as the more technocratic and policy-driven counterpart to Jiang presiding over the State Council, Jiang authorised vital concessions made by China in exchange for the country’s acceptance into the WTO. Notwithstanding pushbacks and criticisms from more trenchant voices within the political establishment, Jiang had remained adamant that a selective relenting on terms concerning control and ownership was more than worth it – as a means of definitively establishing China on the world stage as a major player, at the debut of the millennium. 

Jiang also sought to contain tensions and preclude prospective escalation between China and other major players in global politics. To mollify concerned British politicians and establishment figures, he repeatedly affirmed the country’s commitment to One Country, Two Systems as a modus vivendi for Hong Kong, subsequent to the city’s handover to China in 1997. The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, which could have sparked an unbridled spiral of military involvement, was deftly defused. 

It was not, of course, all picnics and roses. Towards the end of his tenure, he certainly made his ‘baselines’ clear with Japan in his liaison with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi – a move that has been criticised by some as having “set back future-oriented Japan-China relations.” In many ways, the nationalistic rhetoric embraced by the leader reflected the precipitously vociferous grassroots voices, which had constrained the policy options available to the leadership. 

The late statesman was by no means a perfect figure – there are plenty of criticisms that can be levelly offered towards him. That said, the last – and plausibly most intangible yet tenacious aspect of his foreign policy approach – was his distinctive public persona. Jiang was marked by a resounding ability to draw upon a mixture of suave rhetoric, a wise-cracking brand of personal charisma, and sporadic incorporation of humour into his public statements – a synthetic mixture that has helped with repairing his administration’s international image at an age of a growing consensus advocating ‘peaceful transition’ in China. 

There are aspects of Jiang’s persona and repertoire as a statesman that we could take a leaf or two from, such as the ones above. There are also aspects that cannot be easily compared or applied at present – for the times we live in are certainly different from the 1990s or early 2000s. 

For one, present-day China dwarfs Jiang’s China in economic size – and faces unique challenges ranging from concerns over supply chain and energy independence, territorial security, and the country’s rapidly ageing demographics. Whilst unbridled globalisation had been the zeitgeist of the late 1990s, there are now growing signs of balkanisation and fragmentation along lines of ideological and geopolitical interest. 

It would be erroneous to hold that Jiang’s recipe for success could be replicated in full by any particular country – whether it be China or America, in the year 2022. Yet history tends to look kindly upon those who seek peace – and not war. After all, only the former could bring genuine prosperity. 

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