BEIJING — Jiang Zemin, the Shanghai politician selected Saturday as the new head of the Chinese Communist Party, seemed for a few days this spring to have badly mishandled a controversial case of censorship.
As student-led pro-democracy protests escalated in Beijing in late April, Jiang exerted his power as Shanghai's Communist Party chief to fire Qin Benli, the widely respected editor of the World Economic Herald, a liberal weekly newspaper.
Jiang, 62, justified his action as necessary to prevent publication of articles sympathetic to the protests--articles he said would "exacerbate certain factors for social disorder."
But prominent intellectuals in Shanghai and Beijing responded with outrage. The staff of the newspaper sought to bring Jiang to court, accusing him of "harming the reputation" of the Herald. The Herald also released an open letter that called Qin's firing illegal and accused Jiang of having acted "in a simplistic and violent way."
Students in a law class at the People's University of China in Beijing staged a mock trial of Jiang. China's leading reformist, Zhao Ziyang--the Communist Party chief formally ousted Saturday--was rumored to be outraged. The World Economic Herald was seen as an outlet used to float reformist proposals favored by Zhao, and Jiang's action could be viewed as an attack on him.
On May 2, about 8,000 students staged a protest march in Shanghai. Among their chief demands was Qin's reinstatement.
Jiang, it seemed, had only added fuel to the fire of the pro-democracy movement--and he had alienated many in the younger, better-educated generation with which China's future might someday lie.
But Jiang's early hard-line stance on political protest fit with senior leader Deng Xiaoping's analysis of China's needs. And although demonstrations in Shanghai ultimately erupted into the burning of a train that plowed into a group of protesters blocking its path, Jiang pulled Shanghai through China's spring of crisis without a major explosion.
And thus Deng, together with the other elderly leaders who still dominate China, decided to anoint Jiang as the right combination of ideological police officer, economic technocrat and political pawn needed to step into Zhao's forcibly vacated shoes.
Jiang's formal selection as party general secretary by the 170-member Communist Party Central Committee offers him a chance to eventually emerge as the true leader of China. But for now he must be viewed as a compromise candidate without his own power base--someone that Deng feels can embody the 84-year-old senior leader's policies of economic reform, openness to the world and political stability based on one-party dictatorship.
Jiang seems flexible enough to fit the job.
The kind of impression that the new party secretary can make on an outsider, for example, was described in Southern California by Gene H. Weiner, a Danbury, Conn., consultant who met Jiang at an industrial exposition in Shanghai in 1987. Jiang was then mayor of the city.
"He's formidable," Weiner said Saturday in a telephone interview from his hotel in Orange County, where he is visiting. "Confident, self-assured, bright, composed, a guy to be reckoned with. If I were in industry competing with a guy like that, I know I'd have a problem."
Weiner's impressions grew out of Jiang's inspection of a simulated production line for assembling printed circuits that Weiner had organized at the Shanghai exposition.
"I walked him through the line and explained what it meant," Weiner recalled. "It was really an astounding impression. He exuded confidence and power. . . . My wife said to me afterward that if he was in the U.S., he would be the head of a large corporation or in Washington. He was a powerhouse of a guy. I'm not surprised he's shown up again."
Here in China, a Western diplomat described Jiang's personality as "relatively colorless" and said that "he appears ideologically to bend with the political wind from Beijing."
A Chinese source in Hong Kong, quoted by the Associated Press, termed Jiang "politically hard line and economically liberal."
"He likes good food and dresses well, too," this person said. "He is very smooth, very suave, a likable man."
Jiang also is rumored to be the son-in-law of former President Li Xiannian, a hard-liner who still exercises considerable influence. Chinese leaders are extraordinarily secretive about their private lives, but if true, the relationship would help explain his rise.
The former mayor and current party boss of what historically has been China's most sophisticated city, Jiang is somewhat cosmopolitan. He speaks English fairly well, and according to some reports also has some knowledge of German, Russian, Romanian, French and Japanese.
Endorsed Hard-Line Policy