The memory of Jiang Zemin as a politician and a person who managed to melt the ice of mutual distrust, and even enmity between Russia and China and transform it into a firm course of friendship and cooperation, will remain in our hearts, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
On November 30, 2022, Jiang Zemin, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China from 1989-2002 and President of the People’s Republic of China from 1993-2003, passed away. For Russia, remembering him is important because the foundations of partnership and cooperation between Russia and China in the modern era are directly connected with the name Jiang Zemin.
Yes, it is clear that the normalisation of relations between Moscow and Beijing took place earlier, under Deng Xiaoping and Gorbachev. It is enough to recall Gorbachev’s visit to China in 1989 during the dramatic days of the Tiananmen Square protests. But these agreements did not gain traction, at least due to the fact that China was not among the priorities either for Gorbachev or the Soviet Union in the last two years of its existence. The real development of bilateral relations began with the destruction of the old stereotypes which had underscored hostility and suspicion, during the era of Jiang Zemin. The cordiality which replaced them can largely be credited to him.
Jiang Zemin’s approach was also determined by his personal biography. In his youth, even before the deterioration of Soviet-Chinese relations, he trained in the USSR at the Stalin Automobile Plant (which would later become the Likhachev Plant, ZIL). Jiang understood our country, knew the Russian language, and loved to sing Russian songs. This image largely had a great positive impact on the transformation of public opinion in Russia towards China in the 1990s. He gave TV pictures from bilateral summits a much-needed warmth and humanity.
It is no secret that the extremely tense and conflicting relations between the USSR and China had a serious impact on the perception of China and the Chinese in Russia. Fear, mistrust, and at the same time snobbish arrogance towards the Chinese of the late Mao era were very common in the Soviet Union. This was especially acute in the regions of Siberia and the Far East, which were close to the Chinese border. Therefore, it would not be a great exaggeration to say that Sinophobia, both official and popular, was quite strong in the late USSR. In any case, in our opinion, it was much stronger than Americanophobia. America and the West as a whole were political opponents of the Soviet Union, but popular sentiment regarding them in the Brezhnev era and during perestroika in the USSR was determined by the principle “forbidden fruit is sweet.” This was not the case with China in those days. And therefore, it is quite natural that such Sinophobia could not disappear overnight, just because Gorbachev said that now we were friends. To overcome it, extremely serious and difficult work was required to transform the image of China in Russia. The success of this can largely be accredited to Jiang Zemin.