Written by Kerry Brown.

Now that it seems he is finally no longer politically active, perhaps it is a good time to start assessing the historic contribution of Jiang Zemin. Jiang is a hard politician to see clearly largely because, as commentators ranging from Bruce Gilley to Willy Lam long ago pointed out, he stands out as by way and a far the most irritating leader China has had in modern times. This quality of being intensely annoying is something I have personal memory of. As a new entrant to the British Foreign Office in 1998, the team I joined were in the throes of preparing for what was grandly called the `first ever state visit by a Chinese leader to the UK.’ Jiang was the man we were all focussed on.

Like his contemporary as leader of a major country, President Bill Clinton, Jiang was a `hard dog to keep on the porch.’ He famously enjoyed speaking in foreign languages, whether the Russian he had learned while a student in the 1950s in the USSR, or the English he had picked up subsequently. One story had him regaling President Chirac with French poetry while at a chateau on a visit to France. Even more horrifying was his proclivity to burst into song during banquets. His visit to the UK began inauspiciously with him disappearing with his entourage on the first day before the formal programme began in order to be measured up at Madame Tussauds. Weighing heavy on the minds of all those who were working on the programme was the recent explosion of anger he had shown while in, of all places, Switzerland when he had been directed towards the wrong chair to sit on and had fired up momentarily.  It’s safe to say that the one deliverable that the British government wanted in 1999 when he stepped foot on these shores was not to have him going nuts at some protocol sleight, a subject at which we were meant to be world leaders.

I remember a senior official after the visit pompously writing in a telegram words to the effect that `our children will thank us for this visit.’ At the time, however, from my lowly level in an organisation as hierarchical s the Foreign Office then was, it was a chance to see figures I had once through legendary. Jiang seemed remarkable human. A particularly endearing quality was his evident dislike of reams of briefing and background papers. Belonging to an organisation as I then did where countless hours was spent drafting material which was then unceremoniously rewritten to no great effect, Jiang became a personal hero of mine just because of his evident suspicion of the armies of competing officials around him. But the real clue was in his solicitude for his wife, who he insisted accompanied him everywhere. We were dealing with a real human being here, not some Politburo autodidact.

It is easy to forget today just how precarious Jiang’s initial promotion to power in Beijing was, after the events of 1989 and the fall of Zhao Ziyang, and how unexpected his elevation had been. Most up to 1992 regarded him as a stop gap, the person least objectionable to the widest group of networks. By the mid 1990s, however, it was clear that Jiang was here to stay, and with the death of Deng Xiaoping in early 1997 the default of declaring that Jiang was just the old paramount leader’s puppet became defunct. Baring paranormal influence, it was hard to see how Deng could now control things, and in any case, it is clear that from 1994 he was almost wholly inactive.

Jiang enjoyed one vast advantage, which he used with great intuitive skill. He was woefully underestimated, and for that reason, despite the real issues he had after 2002/3 of finally leaving go of influence and power, remains to me the modern Chinese patron saint of those who have been too easily dismissed. The arrogant elite that run large parts of the Foreign Office China world in the 1990s and 2000s used to airily dismiss people as lacking in `gravitas.’ Jiang probably fell into that group. But for all his lack of gravitas, the simple fact is that of modern Chinese leaders he was the one who achieved substantive and long lasting things.

Entry to the World Trade Organisation, for instance, which he managed to steer to its conclusion in 2001 after an epic era of negotiations, and which despite initial misgivings has transformed China’s economy, almost wholly to its advantage. Managing the initial hand back of Hong Kong over the precarious early years when all eyes were on China in a way which gained global confidence and was regarded as successful. Ensuring the Asian economic crisis of 1998 had very little impact on China. Allowing Premier Zhu Rongji from 1998 to implement some of the most painful but necessary reforms of the state owned enterprise system, seeing 60 million workers laid off in the process but without any major unrest. In each of these areas, Jiang was central, and successful. And in many ways, the Hu-Wen period was one of consolidating and fully implementing the risks taken in the Jiang period. Jiang was the politician who took the most difficult steps, in a terrain where he had few initial allies and was largely regarded with disdain.

Jiang’s very strong personality and his ability to form enduring bonds with officials and others who had worked with him are qualities which disappeared from Chinese politics after Hu, but which it seems that Xi Jinping is attempting to resurrect. In the most trying of circumstances, after the upset of the 1989 rebellions, Jiang was the key central leader who steadied the body politic. And despite his annoying inability to truly retire after 2002, the simple fact that is becoming clearer today is that he was the one politician in the last quarter of a century in China that undertook risky, substantial reforms that will have an enduring impact, without the violent cost of any of his predecessors. For that reason, Xi may well look to him rather than any other figure as a model for how to do things in modern Chinese politics.

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Politics and Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Associate Fellow of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, and head of  the EU-funded Europe China Research and Advice Network. He tweets @Bkerrychina