The demise of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin (1926–2022) on Wednesday 30 November marks the end of what is being nostalgically recalled as a golden era for China. He will be long remembered for deftly steadying the wobbly Chinese ship of state after the tragic turbulence engendered by the 1989 Tiananmen Square student uprising.
An unlikely candidate for the top post in China, Mr Jiang—who was seen more as a diligent technocrat who could be trusted to implement the party directive—was brought into the leadership loop by Chinese supremo Deng Xiaoping in mid 1989 in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown. The unlikely candidate stayed at the helm of all affairs Chinese for 14 years before handing over the baton to his successor Hu Jintao.
An astute politician who could read the changing texture of the tea leaves in Beijing, as President, Jiang Zemin was a worthy successor to Deng and proved his mettle by accelerating the economic reforms and progressive privatisation of the local industry through the SEZ (special economic zone) route.
President, Jiang Zemin was a worthy successor to Deng and proved his mettle by accelerating the economic reforms and progressive privatisation of the local industry.
President Jiang dealt with three of his US counterparts and forged an effective working relationship with them through his gregarious nature and occasionally eccentric mannerisms.
The period 1989 to 2002 witnessed the stabilisation and consolidation of China’s bilateral relationship with India.
When France ceased to supply fuel to the Tarapur nuclear power plant in 1994, India turned to China.
President Jiang Zemin was no bleeding heart liberal or a peacenik but, on his watch, the India-China bilateral relationship acquired a promising buoyancy that allowed the envisioning of an Asian century.
China's Growth Trajectory in Turbulent Times
As a former mayor of Shanghai, Mr Jiang was well equipped to both realise the potential of opening up the economy to investment and trade and oversee the gradual irrigation of the coastal ecosystem to enable the capitalist 'cat of any colour to catch the mice'.
China was dramatically transformed on his watch. From being ostracised globally post Tiananmen in 1989—when the GDP was USD 456 billion, and per capita USD 408—China's impressive economic growth was enabled by manufacturing, trade, and foreign investment. By 2002, China became a robust economy whose GDP was USD 1.47 trillion and a per capita of USD 9506.
How Jiang Zemin Brought China's Ostracisation To An End
The 1989–2002 period was very eventful both globally and regionally as far as Asia was concerned. It witnessed the end of the Cold War (December 1991); the brief decade of US primacy that was jolted by the enormity of 9/11 in September 2001, and the turbulence of the last two decades that began with the poorly prosecuted US-led GWOT (global war on terror) that ironically saw the Taliban back in Kabul in mid 2021 amidst the shambolic withdrawal by the Pentagon.
At the global level, President Jiang dealt with three of his US counterparts—George Bush Senior, Bill Clinton and George W Bush—and forged an effective working relationship with them through his gregarious nature and occasionally eccentric mannerisms. All this while, he kept a very firm—on occasion ruthless—hand on the domestic tiller.
Concurrently, he also engaged with the USSR in its last phase and the transition in Moscow from Soviet President Gorbachev to Russian Presidents Yeltsin and Putin.
India China Relations Stabilised, Thanks To Jiang Zemin
In the regional context, the India-China bilateral had its own consequential trajectory beginning with the 1988 visit of then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to Beijing that marked the gradual rapprochement after the October 1962 war. The period 1989 to 2002 witnessed the stabilisation and consolidation of China’s bilateral relationship with India. It may be averred that President Jiang played a significant role in the process along with his counterpart Prime Minister Narasimha Rao .
The 1993 Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas was followed by the military Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) of 1996 when President Jiang visited India—the first by a Chinese head of state. The 1996 visit is deemed to be a watershed event in the uneasy India-China bilateral, for it enabled the implementation of the 1993 agreement.
It is a different matter that this protocol was breached in Galwan in June 2020 and the issue remains unresolved.
Many Indian diplomats who served in China during the Jiang Zemin period or were dealing with Beijing from headquarters in Delhi—K Raghunath, Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, Shyam Saran, Nirupama Rao and Ashok Kantha—describe the level of bilateral cooperation as unprecedented. It was felt more acutely after the bitter memories of October 1962 and related low points in the relationship.
China's Unusual Support To India On Nuclear Energy, Kashmir
It merits recall that when France ceased to supply fuel to the Tarapur nuclear power plant in 1994, India turned to China and the first consignment of uranium was obtained from the China Nuclear Energy Corporation in January 1995.
Furthermore, in relation to Pakistan and the Kashmir issue, President Jiang in his 1996 visit addressed the Pakistan National Assembly and advised them to emulate the India-China template and place political and border related issues aside to work on improving trade and connectivity linkages. This counsel was very welcome in Delhi and the shift in Beijing’s position on Kashmir from one of urging self-determination to framing it as a bilateral matter was very significant. Rawalpindi, alas, chose not to pay heed to this sage advice.
Specific to India, the Jiang Zemin period was rocked by two major events – the May 1998 nuclear tests conducted by the Vajpayee government and the 1999 Kargil war that followed. While Beijing joined the USA in castigating India for its nuclear ‘audacity’, it is instructive that in the Kargil war China chose to remain neutral and did not actively support Pakistan for its reckless transgression.
President Jiang Zemin was no bleeding heart liberal or a peacenik but, on his watch, the India-China bilateral relationship acquired a promising buoyancy that allowed the envisioning of an Asian century. Twenty years later—in the post Galwan stasis—it does seem unlikely that this grand Asian aspiration or much desirable bilateral amity will be regained anytime soon.
(Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies, has the rare distinction of having headed three think tanks. He was previously Director at the National Maritime Foundation (2009-11) and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (2004-05). He tweets @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quintneither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)