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Jiang Zemin, Up Close And Personal

International Outlook


Holding court at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, President Jiang Zemin comes across as genial and avuncular. He shakes hands and poses for a photo with each visitor. This is supposed to be a courtesy call, nothing more, by a small BUSINESS WEEK group. But, in a surprise, Jiang casually launches into a candid half-hour talk about the fine line he has to walk as China's head of state.

While many perceive Chinese leaders to be hard-line and doctrinaire, Jiang, 69, doesn't seem that way in person. He's relaxed, even self-effacing. He also has a confident manner that goes against the outside perception that his grip on power is shaky. As Deng Xiaoping's handpicked successor, Jiang's big challenge is to preserve social stability at a time of enormous economic change. He also has to maintain support of key constituencies, especially the military, and this may be contributing to China's hard line on Taiwan and other issues.

But Jiang doesn't act like a man who is worried about his position. He even takes a swipe at Premier Li Peng, saying the Premier had "to criticize himself" for allowing inflation to rise above 20% in 1994, rather than the 10% he had predicted. Jiang also scolds Chinese leaders for spending too much time partying and not enough on serious pursuits.

COMPETING INTERESTS. As Jiang holds forth, a portrait of Chinese society as a welter of competing interest groups emerges. All are lobbying the President for resources and backing. His toughest challenge, he says, is running a country with regions that have vastly different rates of growth. Because he must juggle the competing interests of rich and poor provinces alike, Jiang says, "I have to wear a conservative hat always."

One of Jiang's big concerns is inflation and the social instability it could bring. He makes clear that he would be willing to bring economic growth below the government's 8% target in 1996 to keep inflation down. But he predicts that growth will "very likely" exceed that. Still, with inflation running only 7.7%, he says, "This year, the Premier does not have to criticize himself because we got good results."

As head of state, Jiang has to be particularly careful about appearing to favor his native Shanghai, China's business capital, over other cities and regions. But, while discussing the problem of overemployment at state factories, he seems to reveal a bias toward his hometown. He compares the outmoded Anshan Iron & Steel plant in the northeast, which has 520,000 workers, to Shanghai's modern Baoshan plant, which employs just 30,000. Both, he says, "produce the same amount of steel each year"--but Shanghai, obviously, is vastly more efficient.

CULTURAL VOID. He uses the case of Anshan to show just how difficult it is to modernize the economy. Local resistance there to downsizing this outmoded plant is intense. "Leaders in the municipal government and in the public-security bureau are against streamlining" the workforce, Jiang says, because they don't want unemployment problems.

When he's not worrying about inflation and jobs, Jiang says, he occupies himself with trying to fill the cultural void that has been created by the near-death of communist ideology. Many of today's leaders, he believes, lack the grand perspective of men such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

He says he is now studying "history to make up for my lack of knowledge"--an example he urges on others. "I always say to our ministers: `Go less to karaoke and learn more history and literature."' Citing Confucius, Jiang adds: "Learning makes people understand how ignorant they are." Then, after Jiang says "good-bye" in English, the visitors depart, but with a more human impression of China's top leader.EDITED BY STANLEY REED By Joyce Barnathan in BeijingReturn to top

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