Because he's kept the world waiting all week as he scores domestic political points off the detention of 24 Americans marooned on the island of Hainan.
Although last Sunday's midair crash cost President Jiang an airman and a plane, it may nonetheless have been a windfall for the Chinese leader. Pilloried by hawkish critics for having responded too limply to NATO's erroneous bombing of China's Belgrade embassy two years ago, this week Jiang set out to burnish his prestige by acting as if he had Washington over a barrel.
And so for most of the week, China answered U.S. appeals to release the downed spy plane and its crew with the diplomatic equivalent of "Your call is important to us, please stay on the line..." And despite President Bush's admonition to cease tampering with the aircraft, the Chinese made no effort to hide the fact that they were all over it like a NASCAR pit crew.
The characteristically wooden President Jiang even appeared to be enjoying himself, as he casually set off, two days into the crisis, for a 10-day visit to Latin America. He paused at the airport to insist that the U.S. apologize for the incident, smiling giddily through his farewell photo op.
A country on the edge of crisis
It's not as if President Jiang doesn't have a care in the world. Far from it. His day job makes President Bush's look like a game of horseshoes. Jiang's country of 1.2 billion people is in a perennial state of crisis as it lurches through an epic transition to capitalism whose attendant social traumas threaten to literally tear the country apart. Millions of people will lose their jobs and a known way of life, cast into a Darwinian vortex of social uncertainty. And in their rage, they're increasingly willing to take to the streets, or sign up with what Beijing sees as dangerous millennarian cults. Accessing the World Trade Organization and integrating itself more completely into the international economy demands that Beijing accelerate rather than ease the pain of economic liberalization a prospect that horrifies its more security-oriented hard-liners. To have come even this far down the capitalist road, Jiang's party has abandoned much of its communist ideology, but not its often brutally authoritarian monopoly on power. That leaves sharp differences over the country's future to be played out in fierce internecine party struggles, with Jiang acting as ringmaster.
In place of the party's discarded communism has come a nervous nationalism, rooted in a perception that China has been the victim of more than a century of foreign bullying and is being targeted once again, this time by the U.S. "hegemonists." That nationalism is now the binding ideology of the new China, and its most enthusiastic champions are often the Nike-wearing, Big Macmunching students being groomed to run China Inc. It is a sentiment Jiang can scarcely ignore.
Moreover, the most important guarantor of any Chinese leader's power today is the military, led by men of hawkish instinct inclined to see the U.S. as an implacable foe.
Jockeying over succession
Jiang spends his working day balancing the yin and yang of order and chaos; modernization and stability; nationalism and cosmopolitanism; reformers and hard-liners. But the president who turns 75 this summer is due to retire 18 months from now, and the jockeying for influence over his succession is already fierce. Jiang wants continuity for his legacy rebuilding China's international standing in the decade following the massacre in Tiananmen Square but he's having a hard time of it. Hard-liners have won a number of the preliminary bouts, shutting out Jiang's picks for top party positions. If he is to maintain an influence over his succession and China's future, he can't afford to be seen as caving in to any perceived U.S. aggression: The president faced some of his sharpest ever criticism for being too soft on the "hegemonists" after the Belgrade bombing.
From Jiang's point of view, the U.S. is doing little to help him keep the hard-liners at bay. Indeed, the Bush administration's consideration of Taiwan's request to buy two sophisticated anti-missile destroyers has put him in a perilous position. Taiwan is a kind of Jerusalem (in the political rather than religious sense) to latter-day Chinese nationalism, and anything perceived as putting the "rebel island" finally beyond China's reach is quite simply intolerable to Beijing.
So the arrival of the 24 U.S. servicemen and women presented an opportunity for Jiang to address his more pressing concerns. Suddenly, Beijing has initiative, and Washington looks uncomfortable. There is President Bush on TV addressing the Chinese to no visible effect. There are the Western TV cameras greedily gobbling up every bit of finger-wagging offered up by mid-level foreign ministry clerks in Beijing. For Jiang, it may have looked like payback time. An opportunity to back the U.S. away from some positions that are causing great discomfort for Jiang and his allies. An opportunity to ritually humiliate the Belgrade bombers, force them to lose face to China's leaders and demonstrate Beijing's power to its own people and the region.
Jiang may hold most of the cards right now, but that doesn't mean he'll play them well. He may be scoring points domestically, but prolonging the crisis could provoke a backlash in Washington, tilting the balance in the U.S. capital more decisively, and finally, in favor of the anti-China hawks an eventuality that might see stepped-up aid to Taiwan, an inclination to thwart China's diplomatic efforts and the creation of a more hostile climate that would increase the likelihood that Beijing's own power struggles will be resolved in favor of the hard-liners. And that would be the worst possible outcome for Jiang. Which is why in the spy-plane standoff, as in every other aspect of his job, the Chinese president is forced to find a balance between competing impulses.
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