The subject is China's President Jiang Zemin who was at the helm, or at least on the bridge, during a crucial transitionary phase in modern Chinese history – the 1990s, when China emerged from the shadow of June 4 and into the spotlight of high-growth global factory. This is his biography, as written by Robert Lawrence Kuhn, who is described on the dust jacket as a managing director at Smith Barney / Citigroup.
Kuhn was given considerable access to Jiang and to the people around him, and the official publicity campaign that accompanied the publication of the book earlier this year in both Chinese and English expresses clearly the fact that this is an authorized biography, with all the negatives and positives that that implies.
Unauthorized means freedom to criticize but a paucity of materials, while authorized means more sycophantic but more access to the subject. It is a dilemma faced by writers penning biographical history, whether they are writing about pop stars or politicians. So taking into account the authorized nature of the book, what can be drawn from it?
One thing that sprung out was the fact that Jiang was chosen to be the Communist Party leader in mid-1989, during the Tiananmen crisis by Deng Xiaoping without any reference to the views even of the other politburo members, let alone a broader constituency than that.
The book refers openly to a difference of opinion between Jiang and former premier Li Peng over China's relationship with the United States. Jiang and his supporters believed good relations with the United States were a precondition for China growing its economy and improving the lives of its people, while "some of their colleagues, especially Li Peng, disagreed," Kuhn says.
There it is, the factional split in the late 1990s leadership officially visible for the first time.
In his final years in power, Jiang participated in almost daily photo opportunities for the People's Daily and other official newspapers to use on their front pages. Egotistical or meeting his political responsibilities? Hard to say. He never gave me the impression that he enjoyed his job.
It is easy to be critical of Jiang, but the fact is he was thrust into the top job against his will or expectation at the toughest possible moment, when the party was at its absolute weakest point, and he oversaw the recovery of the party's prestige and political position while almost all other ruling communist parties around the world collapsed. Whatever the view one wants to take on that, China's economy and living standards grew furiously during the Jiang years and he deserves some credit for pushing through the last wishes of his mentor, Deng Xiaoping.
Whether he has served himself well in the long term by presumably commissioning this sugar-coated historically correct work is another story. He would have done better in my opinion by taking more of a risk and working with someone who would have produced a work with more credibility, but even if he had wanted to, the political constraints on him doing that, of course, were viciously powerful.
This book in the end has significant historical value because of the crucial role of its subject. But it is between the lines that the value lies.
The Man Who Changed China, by Robert Lawrence Kuhn. Published by Crown. Available on Amazon.com at US$23.10