Twenty-six years ago on the night of June 4, 1989, on Tiananmen Square, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) answered student’s hope for democracy with tanks and guns. That night, the Tiananmen appeal became the Tiananmen Massacre. Not only have many people’s memories of that night faded; any discussion of what really happened has become taboo in China. To those who live in China, but were born later, it never happened.
However, this event has had a significant historical impact on both China and the world. One of the most significant was the coming to power of Jiang Zemin and the enduring effect his legacy has had on China.
Jiang was the Party Secretary of Shanghai during the June 4 period, when the Party reached a choice point. The conservatives criticized the Party’s General Secretary Zhao Ziyang for his pro-democracy attitude. Jiang, on the other hand, was a hardliner. When he disciplined a pro-democracy newspaper in Shanghai several weeks earlier, he demonstrated the strength the Party admired. Thus, China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping chose him to replace Zhao Ziyang.
Since he was just a local Party Secretary, Jiang had limited Central government leadership experience and no military background. How could he lead other officials?
Jiang is not a person with vision, but he did have one thing going for him. He and his close ally Zeng Qinghong are masters at appealing to man’s weaker nature. They created a brilliant structure to assure successful governance. Officials could be corrupt, but exempt from charges of corruption, if they vowed loyalty to Jiang.
This has resulted in the systematic web of corruption that China faces today. Officials, no matter how corrupt, could be promoted just by joining Jiang’s faction and being loyal to him.
Granted, Jiang was not the one who introduced the official corruption. It had already become a problem under Deng Xiaoping. Part of the June 4th appeal was to stop the Party elite’s corruption. When Deng chose the gun instead of reform to protect the CCP’s reign, he also protected the corruption. However, it was Jiang who made corruption a national practice among all levels of officials.
In 1999, Jiang also started the campaign to eliminate Falun Gong, a spiritual practice following the principles of “Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance.” Quickly eliminating a spiritual group that did not fight back would secure the Party’s dominance in the area of ideology and establish his legacy. Jiang’s plan didn’t work. Today, 16 years later, in China, not only is Falun Gong still standing but it has also spread throughout the world. Jiang’s faction, with several key members already taken down, is on wobbly legs.
The system of corruption ended up being a time bomb for both Jiang and the CCP. If the Chinese people had found out the extent of the corruption, there would have been a huge public outcry, ending the Party right there and then. Likewise if the rest of the world learned of the brutality of the persecution of Falun Gong, it too would turn against the CCP.
With this on his mind when he retired, Jiang worked hard to ensure that his legacy continued. He created a nine-member Politburo Standing Committee structure with his people taking a majority of the seats. He kept his office in the Central Military Commission (CMC) and installed Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong as two Vice Chairmen of the CMC. These rendered his successor Hu Jintao impotent in the area that mattered to his legacy.
With the transition of power from Hu to Xi Jinping, Jiang wanted not just the same result, but something bigger. His protégé Bo Xilai worked with Zhou Yongkang to foment a political coup to overthrow Xi. Even after the coup was exposed, Jiang defended both of them.
Jiang imposed his legacy of corruption and religious persecution on his successors. Hu Jintao, besieged by Jiang’s people, at first avoided confrontation, but eventually took down Bo Xilai. Xi Jinping, after taking office, started a large-scale anticorruption campaign and vowed to get the “ultimate big tiger.”
The June 4th Event and Jiang’s legacy have clearly left their mark on China.