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Jiang Searches for an American Moment



With slicked back, thining black hair and matching black oversized spectacles, the 71-year-old Chinese President Jiang Zemin appears neither suave nor telegenic.

But Americans and their Chinese counterparts halfway around the world are watching his every move because Jiang leads 1.2 billion people in the world's most populous country with one of the world's fastest growing economies.

China's emergence as a regional power and a rising world superpower has raised calls for containment among some security experts while American businesses are clamoring for engagement to gain a foothold in the enormous Chinese market.

When Deng Xiaoping died nine months ago, Jiang was poised to take over leadership of China. With the support of the military, Jiang introduced himself to the world at Hong Kong's handover and went back home to consolidate his power within the Communist Party at the 15th National People's Congress this fall.

While it seems that few people in the United States knew of Jiang before his current tour of America--the first state visit by a Chinese leader in 12 years--America is not new to Jiang.

His son, Jiang Mian Heng, graduated from Drexel University in 1991 with a Ph.D in electrical engineering. Jiang himself has previously visited the United States. As mayor of Shanghai, Jiang toured sister city San Francisco and became fast friends with its mayor, Dianne Feinstein, who is now a Democratic Senator from California.

President Clinton has announced plans to visit China late next year. This would be the first visit by an American president since before Tiananmen Square.

An engineer by training--Jiang spent one year working at the Stalin Automobile Plant in Moscow--the Chinese president-to-be kept the door to political life open by joining the communist party of China before graduating from college.

After graduation, Jiang's first jobs were in candy and soap factories. As he climbed the company ladder, he also picked up some political posts, eventually making it to Beijing in the Ministry of Machine-Building-Industry.

His rise up the party ranks received a major boost immediately following the Tiananmen Square massacre in June of 1989. In part for his bloodless handling of protests in Shanghai during the summer of that year, Deng chose Jiang as his successor.

The power struggle between conservative and liberal leaders in the party forced Deng to pick someone tough enough to be accepted by conservatives, yet progressive enough to continue Deng's economic reforms.

Jiang had proven his mettle to conservatives during the beginning of the Tiananmen unrest by getting rid of the editor at an aggresively liberal newspaper in Shanghai.

Although it would be easy to dismiss Jiang's political skills because of Deng's protective wing, Jiang has proven in recent months that he is ready and and eager to assume the mantle of leadership. While giving the keynote speech in Hong Kong on July 1, Jiang hit the right buttons to ease the fears of Western nations and, most importantly, foreign investors. His trip through the United States has given him even greater stature at home.

"Protest against Jiang might even be a good thing," says Drexel Professor of Physics Feng Da Hsuan. "Protests mean that Americans care enough about Jiang to demonstrate against him."

In a culture where respect is of utmost importance, President Clinton showed a great deal of respect for Jiang by agreeing to disagree with the Chinese leader about human rights. Their edgy debate during a joint press conference showed Chinese viewers that their president was sparring with the leader of the United States--and Jiang was not backing down.

Yet Jiang faces extremely difficult tasks ahead. Hollywood has rallied around Tibet's cry for autonomy while Taiwan remains a tremendously sore spot in international relations. The legacy of Tiananmen Square has not worn out, as this week's protests have shown. Besides the three terrible Ts (Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen), China might have a fourth: Trade. The imbalance between China and the U.S. is about $40 billion, second only to the deficit between Japan and the U.S.

The biggest winner of the entire Jiang-Clinton summit may very well be Boeing--Jiang agreed to a $3 billion deal to buy 50 airplanes--which speaks volumes about the relationship between the two countries.

Economics will continue to dominate the relationship and that a few symbolic high-tech purchases will not make a dent in the trade deficit.

During the summit, China severed nuclear cooperation with Iran in order to improve relations with the United States. The commercial nuclear power contracts that China could make with the U.S. instead could be worth as much as $60 billion.

For Jiang, this state visit is crucial to his legitimization into world politics. Jiang could have avoided a potentially contentious speech at Harvard, but he has not backed down in the face of possible demonstrations. Filling his itinerary with visits to symbols of American's democratic values--including Thursday's trip to Philadelphia, home of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall--Jiang seems to relish standing against the backdrop of freedom at each of his stops.

Whatever Jiang does in America will inevitably be compared to Deng's trip in 1979, when Deng was also trying to establish himself. Deng's defining moment was his donning of a 10-gallon hat in Texas. Could holding the Philadelphia Flyers' jersey with his name on the back be Jiang's moment?

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