Last week on November 30th, former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader, Jiang Zemin, passed away in Shanghai at the age of 96. Shanghai was special to Jiang as it was the place where his rise to leadership began as mayor. Jiang was open to engaging with the West even in the early days of his political career. While mayor, he formed a sister city with San Francisco and a friendship with its mayor at the time, US Senator Dianne Feinstein.
After rising to become China’s president in 1993, Jiang led China out of isolation after the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989. He also supported economic reforms that laid the foundation for a more open Chinese economy and led to a “decade of explosive growth” (Press Herald). Jiang established the basis of active engagement with the West and friendly diplomacy between the US and China.
In 2003 at the end of Jiang’s second term, the Communist Party selected Hu Jintao as Jiang’s successor who, like Jiang, aimed to expand the Chinese markets and open the Chinese economy. By the end of Hu’s reign, China had fully embraced capitalism, private industry, and engagement with the West and an economy based on the rule of law consistent with other countries. Both Hu and Jiang were critical in establishing predictability and international confidence in China by fostering capitalistic principles and the rule of law in Chinese economic policy.
At the end of Hu’s term, Xi Jinping, another former senior political leader of Shanghai, was selected as the next chairman. When Xi Jinping first assumed office in 2013, most of the world assumed the capitalistic economic direction would continue, especially given his alignment with Li Keqiang who took on the role of Xi’s right-hand man.
For the majority of Xi’s first two terms, he did not deviate much from the economic path that came before him. By making Li his Premier and potential successor, Xi indicated a continued openness to capitalism. Li was known for focusing on initiatives such as remaking China’s credit-driven growth model. His plan was to increase the efficiency of the internet-based sector through the privatization of companies by shifting government focus to support small and private businesses. This economic philosophy aligned with Jiang and Hu’s policies.
However, late in his second term, Xi removed Li from the spotlight and initiated his own economic strategy looking not to Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, but to Mao Zedong.
In his first five-year term in office, Xi was dubbed “Chairman of Everything” after he put himself in charge of armed forces, national security, domestic politics, ideology, and the economy, reversing a consensus for the ruling inner circle to avoid power struggles by sharing decision-making. He was recognized on both national and international stages as China’s strongest leader since Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s.
Xi’s economic strategy was inspired by philosophy back from the Mao Zedong Era. He argued that capitalism was only a short-lived road to socialism, a temporary stage in the creation of their socialist utopia. As such, he set long-term goals for common prosperity and exercised significantly increased party control on private ownership. His policies clamped down on the private sector, imposed restrictions on data collection, and implemented real estate inspection that went after the richest people in China. Xi presented a unified method of a shift away from capitalist influence in China.
For some, this was a sudden and unexpected switch. As recent as six months ago, some in the media were suggesting that Li Keqiang would be entrusted to turn the economy back around. Some even speculated that Li could be Xi’s successor.
However, in the last few months, the answer to this question has been made more clear than ever before. At the final session of the Communist Party Congress meeting in October, Li Keqiang was excluded from the elite Politburo Standing Committee well before the traditional age of retirement (Reuters). The meeting concluded with a video of former party leader, Hu Jintao, being led off of the stage in a confused state while Premier Xi sat there seemingly indifferent (CBC News). Later, in honor of his death, a similar photo of Jiang Zemin was released on an official CCP instagram page.
As in any important event, some images persist that embody the moment. In the case of the visuals released by the CCP media of the feeble Hu and frail Jiang placed in contrast to a powerful Xi, one could conclude that these images are intentionally symbolic of the end of one era and the beginning of a new era that looks back much farther into the past.