Beloved Comrades

There’s a raging bull market in news out of China.

Every day brings a new twist in an increasingly lively tale of political intrigue and socioeconomic uncertainty.

Just a few days on from nationwide protests which included (loud) calls for Xi Jinping’s ouster, China lost Jiang Zemin, whose decade-long presidential tenure was defined by a continuation of the epochal economic shift towards capitalism that began under Deng Xiaoping.

Jiang wasn’t necessarily destined for a prominent place in any history books. He was effectively installed at the helm of the Party in 1989, when Deng’s alarm at student protests led him to move against Zhao Ziyang, whose sympathetic approach to the unrest engendered a kind of existential dread among Party hardliners. “I hope everyone will regard Jiang Zemin as the core of the party and unite together,” Deng told key conservatives huddled, war room-style, during an intense intra-Party power struggle that year. ”Please don’t look down on each other and waste energy fighting among yourselves.”

Upon being purged from the Party, Zhao was put under house arrest. When he died, in 2005, Beijing effectively disallowed formal commemoration. As the BBC noted at the time, state-run papers ran just “four or five lines” under the headline “Comrade Zhao Ziyang passes away.”

By contrast, a Party announcement carried by state media this week marking Jiang’s death featured a 24-minute video homage set to somber music, along with heavy praise. China’s “beloved comrade” was, according to Beijing, “recognized by our Party, our army and the people of all nationalities as an outstanding leader with high prestige, a great Marxist, a great proletarian revolutionist, statesman, military strategist, diplomat and a long-tested communist fighter.”

Jiang, the Party wrote, was “an outstanding leader of the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The memorial painstakingly recreated Jiang’s life, including the following generous (to put it mildly) account of the tumultuous circumstances around his ascension:

At the turn of the spring and summer of 1989, serious political turmoil occurred in our country. Comrade Jiang Zemin supported and implemented the correct decision of the Party Central Committee to oppose turmoil with a clear-cut stand, defend the socialist state power and safeguard the fundamental interests of the people.

I’m not sure everyone would agree with the “correct decision” characterization of the Party’s response to the Tiananmen protests, but… well, water under the bridge. Only not, because Jiang’s death coincided with what many observers described this week as the most serious wave of social unrest since 1989.

Outwardly, Jiang didn’t exactly fit the mold. A video montage carried by Bloomberg during its Hong Kong programming Thursday was a highlight reel of China’s economic rise under Jiang (Bloomberg made sure to include a clip of Jiang ringing the opening bell on Wall Street. “We are deeply gratified that he has chosen to come to the NYSE,” Richard Grasso, chairman of the exchange at the time, said that morning.) The New York Times described a “garrulous, disarming exception to the mold of stiff, unsmiling Chinese leaders.” Jiang, the Times wrote, was a Communist who would quote Lincoln, proclaim his love for Hollywood films and burst into songs like ‘Love Me Tender.'”

His influence didn’t wane quickly in retirement. During what the Chinese foreign ministry described as a “family-like” meeting with Henry Kissinger in 2013, Jiang called Xi “capable and wise,” and said that in his “personal experience,” the US and China could “solve problems as long as leaders from both sides communicate with each other sincerely.”

Arguably, Jiang was skeptical of the idea that China could accomplish its goals while in open conflict with the US. Having presided over China’s WTO entry (which some foreign policy hawks in Washington bitterly regard as an unforgivable strategic blunder by the West) and the transformation of the Chinese economy into a global powerhouse that opportunistically appealed to America’s capitalist vanities, Jiang was certainly a modernizer, even as he was effectively just carrying on Deng’s legacy. And yet, as one former CIA analyst told the Times, “He knew how to flip the anti-US switch when he had to.” He was also ready and willing to suppress dissent when necessary.

Jiang’s “Three Represents” theory (praised in the Party’s official memorial this week) sought, among other things, to bring wealthy entrepreneurs into the Party fold. As the same CIA analyst put it, “Jiang saw that they were an emerging constituency that they could either have inside the tent or making trouble from outside the tent.”

This week, amid national protests and Jiang’s death, the Financial Times reported on the whereabouts of China’s most famous wealthy entrepreneur, Jack Ma who, as recently as October 2020, was “making trouble from outside the tent.”

Ma famously ran afoul of Xi two years ago when, during a speech in Shanghai, Ma criticized regulators. Xi subsequently iced Ma’s plans to take Ant Group public, before embarking on a heavy-handed crackdown aimed at China’s largest tech companies. Ma, FT said, has lived in Tokyo for six months and visits the US and Israel “regularly.” In Japan, he generally confines himself to private clubs. He’s not alone: He has a security detail and a personal chef. (As would I if I thought Xi might be after me.)

It’s been three years since China saw the first known case of COVID. The Party is now keen to describe a “new phase” in its virus control efforts amid national unrest. Citizens in Beijing are apparently allowed to isolate in their homes, rather than being confined to quarantine facilities run by the Party, and as Bloomberg noted Thursday, marking the morbid anniversary of the first case in Wuhan, “state-backed media, which have spent years demonizing the virus and showcasing the devastation and death toll in Western countries, are now playing up stories of COVID survivors in a bid to reassure the same people they’ve frightened.”

As documented here on innumerable occasions of late, re-opening is risky. A rough estimate of the caseload based on other nations’ experience with omicron suggests China could see infections surge into the hundreds of millions. In such a scenario, China’s under-vaccinated elderly would surely suffer mass fatalities and the country’s healthcare system could buckle, a situation Xi doubtlessly views as unacceptable.

And yet, the public plainly believes “COVID zero” is past its sell-by date, and the economy agrees. PMI figures released this week suggested economic activity contracted again in November. Private sector estimates for Chinese growth in 2023 suggest little confidence in the Party’s capacity to engineer a return to the kind of steady, robust growth markets became accustomed to beginning with Jiang and continuing until the eve of a global public health crisis that began on Chinese soil.

Either way, Xi will likely be compelled to deal with more unrest. It’s just a matter of scale. And how he responds. In another good Op-Ed for Bloomberg, Clara Ferreira Marques wrote that “it’s easy to overdo the comparisons with the student-led protests in Tiananmen Square — it’s the first image most outside China will reach for.” Still, she said, there’s a “long tradition of Chinese demonstrators using the dead to speak to the living.”

She mentioned Hu Yaobang, of course, Zhao Ziyang’s predecessor who died of a seizure following a heart attack. “Hu’s seizure was a prelude to China’s,” Nicholas Kristof, the Times‘s Beijing bureau chief in 1989 wrote, on November 12 of that fateful year. “[Hu’s] demise became an opportunity to express wider discontent,” Ferreira Marques said Wednesday, before asking, “Could Jiang be 2022’s catalyst?”


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7 thoughts on “Beloved Comrades

  1. “From order comes chaos”
    Covid policy changing during the winter is not very good timing but the summer was caught up with the coronation containment.
    Having spent the last three days at a hospital here in New York, tending to a friend and talking to staff, makes me believe that the US will have a bit of a winter itself.

  2. Covid, flu and rsv are all problems in nyc. Thanksgiving gatherings were a spreading event and I expect Christmas and new years holidays will be as well. We have more tools than a year or two ago but it is still somewhat concerning. Osterholm, an infectious disease expert said 5 years to really put this to bed- that is roughly November of 2024 to march 2025, depending how you start it.

  3. Xi and the people around him are smart & well informed enough to know that Omicron Covid is too easily transmissible to contain. they know that zero-Covid is impossible at this point. As such, they’re confronted with the same decisions Western governments have made, namely how to keep the rate of spread low enough that hospitals aren’t overwhelmed. “Flattening the Curve” will be their policy going forward, even if they don’t call it that. It’ll take about 18 months, but in the end, Covid policy in China will look indistinguishable from policy in the rest of the world.

    As for the protests, every well made pressure cooker has an over-pressure release valve. Letting a little steam vent prevents the whole thing from exploding. Over the course of the last three years, the combination of geopolitical events, environmental disasters, and Covid containment measures have all worked in concert to increase the pressure to unmanageable levels. Letting a little steam vent is the obvious decision for the CCP.

    Those surprised by the lack of a crackdown on open protest are underestimating Chinese leaderships’ ability to manage the body politic. Letting protestors gather over the weekends, wave signs, and make some noise releases enough pressure to prevent an explosion. No one is setting dumpsters on fire, flipping police cars, or throwing bricks through the windows of government buildings. So long as that doesn’t happen, don’t expect large-scale crack-downs.

    (That said, were I Chinese, I definitely wouldn’t be showing up at any of these protests, you can bet your bottom yuan that every person involved is being identified and flagged in the System. They’ll have all kinds of subtle difficulties crop up throughout their future endeavors.)

    1. WMD – great point on the pressure cooker release valve.

      Perhaps the PRC leaders are cautious about going Full-DeSantis after watching what happened in India when they lifted restrictions after the first wave, only to see the virus to return in a much more virulent fashion. Given their respective healthcare systems, China is probably closer to India than Florida or Texas.

      1. Wasn’t the India debacle the Delta wave? America has > 1 million Covid deaths, but the vast majority of those were pre-Omicron.

        Anyway, my larger point was actually that they would muddle forward with mixed containment measures, which is exactly what America did. It’s not the Florida model, it’s the spectrum from NYC – Florida model where different municipalities respond according to how much strain they’re under.

        1. My recollection is that Modi was counting on the “herd immunity” argument championed by the anti-vax crowd here as well. That did not work out so well when Delta hit.

          The places where that approach ruled can now look forward to an ongoing burden from Long Covid, which may turn out to be a larger issue than most think.

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