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China's Leader Campaigning for Cult Status

Politics: The president wants people to say 'Jiang' with the same reverence as 'Mao' and 'Deng.' The trouble is, he's just not exciting.

October 01, 2002|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — It's hard to create a cult of personality when so many people think you don't have one.

That's the tough lesson China's No. 1 leader, President Jiang Zemin, has learned, despite a media offensive by his handlers that would put many U.S. politicians to shame.

He kisses babies, sings at state banquets and hires pollsters to tell him how he's doing. His face is plastered on billboards and book covers. Like his two iconic predecessors, Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping, he goes swimming for the cameras to demonstrate his vigor.

But to many Chinese, Jiang, 76, still cuts a colorless figure.

"Jiang Zemin is like an old lady," one veteran Communist Party member in Beijing said disdainfully.

By all accounts, the bespectacled, bookish-looking Jiang is desperate to be elevated into the Chinese pantheon alongside Mao, the founder of the People's Republic, and Deng, the mentor who plucked Jiang almost out of nowhere to be his successor.

Yet despite holding all the most important titles in China--president, party secretary and head of the military--Jiang is far less powerful than the two men before him, who ruled with absolute authority based on their status as heroes of the Communist revolution.

These days, Jiang's leadership is under the microscope as China gears up for its 16th Communist Party Congress, a crucial political gathering held every five years and due to begin Nov. 8. All eyes are fixed on the Chinese president to see whether he will step down from his post of party chief, as widely expected, or hang on to power.

Whatever his intentions, there is no question that Jiang and his supporters have been trying for years to burnish his image through an aggressive public-relations campaign, including frequent photo ops with world leaders such as the one he will no doubt participate in with President Bush at the American leader's Texas ranch this month.

Jiang's concern--some call it an obsession--about his public persona is not simply a function of vanity, although those who have met him say there seems no shortage of that. It is also, analysts say, a political ploy, part of a wider effort over the last decade to strengthen his position and ensure that his influence endures even if he steps down in November.

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New Skepticism in Air

Jiang doesn't boast the pedigree of Mao or Deng. At the same time, 20 years of breakneck social and economic change have given rise to a better-educated, more sophisticated and more skeptical Chinese populace than ever before, open to outside influences and information--some of it highly unflattering to its unelected leaders.

Hence Jiang's unrelenting media blitz, which aims to establish him firmly in the public's eyes as the rightful heir to the throne.

Jiang, observers say, has spent more time and effort cultivating his image than other Chinese leaders, going so far as to discreetly hire a PR firm back in 1997 to find out how people rated his performance in presiding over Hong Kong's return to Beijing's control.

"I think it's a new situation," said Victor Yuan, the founder of an independent polling firm in Beijing that has researched popular attitudes about government. "In the U.S., politicians, at least on the face of it, say they try to please the public. Here, people are not voters; they still [can only] listen to their leaders. But those leaders are starting to think about public opinion."

Such opinion still has extremely limited impact on a system that eschews public accountability. Power in China continues to flow mainly from back-room deals, tight political control and other undemocratic practices by the Communist Party.

But the current regime has staked its legitimacy on its ability to deliver prosperity to the nation's 1.3 billion people and to turn China into a major player on the world stage. Popular opinion can no longer be written off, even if it's not yet the direct key to power.

Gone are the days when Mao or Deng could remain the unquestioned ruler of China whatever the results of his policies.

Mao was revered as the Great Helmsman despite disastrous mistakes such as the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s--a collectivization program in which a staggering 30 million people died of starvation--and the anarchic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

Deng, too, remained "paramount leader" through and after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, although he held no formal titles by the time of his death except honorary president of a charity and of China's Bridge Assn.

Jiang is a cautious technocrat, not an inspirational revolutionary or visionary. His political credentials come from a Shanghai university and a Soviet car factory, not the legendary Long March of the 1930s, the crucible that yielded the early leaders of the People's Republic.

He has had to rely instead on astute political maneuvering to knock off his rivals ever since Deng anointed him party chief right after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

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