Jiang Zemin, Communist who made China capitalist - GulfToday

Jiang Zemin, Communist who made China capitalist

Jiang Zemin

Jiang Zemin

The death of Jiang Zemin, who was China’s top communist as well as president of the country for a decade and more, died at the age of 96 on Wednesday. He came to power a little before the Tiananmen Square protests by students and the harsh crackdown that followed in 1989 and when he handed over power to the quiet and suave Hu Jintao in 2002, China was in the top league of the global economy, member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and a big trade partner with the United States. The Jiang years saw Chinese economy growing at 10 per cent annually.

A Communist in post-Mao China, and a successor to reformist Deng Xiaoping, Jiang too put China on the road to capitalism without any self-doubt. He allowed the private sector to prosper, and as a matter of fact the Chinese private sector became the by-product of Chinese state enterprises and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Jiang let loose the private sector on the economic front as Mao had for a brief moment allowed ideological liberalisation through his ‘let hundred flowers bloom’ in the 1950s. Jiang even welcomed the entrepreneurs and business folk to join the communist party.

At a time when Xi Jinping is facing protests in the face of his harsh zero-Covid policy and the lockdowns that go with it, the Jiang years seem in contrast to be free and open. But many China-watchers are now pointing out that it was Jiang’s unfettered free market economy that has created many of China’s present-day policies that Xi tackling, like corruption, acute inequality leading to social and economic unrest. But Jiang was no Western liberal.

He allowed the market economy to operate within Chinese parameters that is it was fully under the state supervision even though the state had stepped back from being a direct participant in the economy. It is the economic growth of the Jiang years and the prosperity it has unleashed that made China the economic powerhouse that it is today. China has not only become the manufacturing hub of cheap labour but it has also become a consumer market as well.

When a team of New York Times editors interviewed Jiang in 2001 and questioned as to why there was no political liberalisation after the economic liberalisation, Jiang said that China cannot afford a competitive multi-party democracy because then people of China would face hunger. It might sound like a dictator’s answer but Jiang was being pragmatic. He felt that China needed a strong state to keep the billion plus people employed and fed, and it would be impossible without a strong and unified state.

The move away from Jiang’s limited economic liberalism to the rigid ideological control that is now visible under Xi might seem a natural pendulum swing, but it is not. The Chinese economic growth could have been sustained by the relatively free play of market forces and the emergence of Jack Ma of Ali Baba and other rich celebrities. Coming down heavily against them is sure to be a dampener on the entrepreneurial energies and creativity of the Chinese. It would be hard to sustain economic growth in a state-controlled economy as became evident in the Mao years. Xi’s ideological approach does not seem to be a corrective to Jiang’s economic liberalism, but it is a reversal of policy which could impact China’s economic clout.

Jiang made China powerful in the world in economic terms, and China came to be respected, envied and even feared. Perhaps, China will have to find its way back to a liberalised economic model to assert its position in the world. Jiang remains relevant.

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