After the Patriarch
Jiang Zemin's collective government has replaced Deng Xiaoping's autocratic model. Jiang faces great hurdles, but Chinese governance may be better for the change.

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By Matt Forney in Beijing with Pamela Yatsko in Shanghai

March 6, 1997
The most poignant image during Deng Xiaoping's wake came when his youngest daughter approached his open casket weeping, caressed his powdered face, and kissed him. The rest of China treated his passing with little emotion.

That's not how it happened in 1976. When Mao Zedong died, the country ground to a standstill for 20 days as one-quarter of humanity mourned, and 300,000 people filed past his body. This difference in itself is testament to the change Deng brought to China. Much of the grief Mao's demise engendered grew from fear about the future. That Deng's death evoked little emotion shows the confidence with which most Chinese enter the new age.

They have much to be confident about. China seems poised to complete its first smooth transition of power since the Qing dynasty. Deng's chosen successor, Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin, is the designated "core" of a leadership team that has run the country since 1993. The team members might not like each other, but they are not ideological enemies and have shown they can work together.

And yet, things are not as they were before the night of February 19, when Deng died at age 92. His power did not merely transfer to Jiang. Instead, Communist China experienced a fundamental change in regime. With the expiration of its final revolutionary leader, collective rule has replaced strongman rule for the first time in its modern history.

Sceptics say a committee cannot lead a country like China and in the long term, maybe they're right. But for now, collective rule might be just what China needs, for it could bring fundamental changes that modernize governance. Institutions stand to gain in importance as personal authority wanes. No Chinese leader will ever again enjoy a cult of personality. Political factions might move towards the centre.

And Jiang, once derided as a figurehead, remains best positioned to lead. "Even if he is a political vegetarian," says Ellis Joffe, professor of Chinese Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, "maybe China doesn't need someone with a taste for the jugular right now."

Without doubt, the caveats that threaten Jiang's leadership are enormous. A severe crisis would explode party unity, and the list of potential incendiaries is long: Hong Kong's retrocession in July goes amok, Taiwan's push for autonomy riles hardliners, farmers attack rapacious taxmen, demonstrators spill into Tiananmen Square, generals lose faith in Jiang's leadership, the economy falls moribund, and so on.

But nobody in government would handle these crises any better than Jiang. "Perhaps Jiang is lucky to be surrounded by people who, like himself, climbed bureaucratic ladders" and can't appeal outside their tight circles, says Joseph Fewsmith of Boston University. "I think he has a credible shot."

Mao didn't need cronies he scarcely needed a government. During his Cultural Revolution, radical Red Guards occupied entire cities. Their tribunals dispensed justice and their slogans replaced classrooms. Even when Mao pushed the country to such despair that the People's Liberation Army forcibly restored order, his personality cult protected him.

Deng, conversely, promised the power of institutions. He requested that his body not lie in state, so none might bow before it. He didn't want his legacy to empower his successor. But repeatedly in his career, Deng overruled the institutions he wanted to create just as Jiang overruled his last wish and allowed a brief ceremony, including three bows, before Deng's body.

Unlike Mao and Deng, Jiang does not enjoy the unswerving support of the PLA. Yet he has overseen purges of the generals who most threatened him, and appointed their replacements. He regularly tours China's military regions to show his respect. The generals have made clear that they support party unity, which is what Jiang seems to provide.

"The main issue these days is economic strategy, not law and order," says Gerald Segal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "The PLA is a less central player under these circumstances."

The exception is when the military feels China's interests threatened. During Taiwan's first direct presidential elections last year, military hardliners pushed for extensive missile "tests" in the Taiwan Strait. Jiang conceded his grip on foreign-policy to them.

Since then, however, Jiang has reasserted himself in diplomatic matters, and he wants to consolidate this with a visit to the United States. When newly appointed Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Beijing the day before Deng's funeral, neither side yielded on divisive issues like human rights but it still appears Jiang will make his visit this year.

Paeans to the "motherland" now punctuate nearly every speech Jiang makes. Deng had often insisted that he wanted to visit Hong Kong after this summer's transition. With him gone, if the wayward territory balks at having its Bill of Rights eviscerated or shows signs of becoming a truculent adolescent toward the motherland, Jiang would likely respond sternly, heedless of international opinion.

At home, while unambiguously endorsing reform, Jiang has revised the more radical elements of Deng's economic policies. Deng's most significant statements came in 1992, when the 87 year old leader toured his special economic zones to promote faster growth. Today, the patriarch's comments lie buried in his Selected Works Jiang scarcely recalled them during his nationally televised eulogy.

Instead of promoting Dengist models like Shenzhen, the commercial hotpot across the border from Hong Kong, Jiang created his own model. In Zhangjiagang, three hours west of Shanghai, neatly dressed cyclists walk their bicycles through intersections along the impeccable main street. Spitters and smokers don yellow vests for public humiliation. Pedestrians swipe the stray piece of litter from the gutter before visitors can photograph it.

Zhangjiagang is part of Jiang's campaign for a "spiritual civilization" a catchphrase for strong ideological control and a strain of Confucian obedience to temper the capitalist excesses that Deng unleashed. It's a whitewash that annoys many intellectuals. "Mention Shenzhen and everybody knows what it means," says a professor in Beijing. "But Zhangjiagang? Who cares?"

If intellectuals are bothered, Jiang's seatmates on the politburo don't seem to be. That's to be expected. The choice is to hang together or hang separately, and "none of them wants to be remembered in Chinese history as the man who split the country like Mikhail Gorbachov did the Soviet Union," says a Russian diplomat in China.

The faces surrounding Jiang will change before the year is out: This autumn's 15th Party Congress will introduce new members to the politburo. Li Peng is expected to resign as premier next year, and Jiang will have to force others aside. Deng's solution to this problem was to drive his peers into retirement, and retire with them an option not available to Jiang. "He'll have to discard people without playing the age card because he's just as old," says a Western diplomat in Beijing.

That leads to a final, frightening thought. Jiang, at 70, has no successor. Until he does, his unexpected death would throw the leadership into certain chaos. Should that happen, mourners won't cry for him. They'll cry for the future of China.

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