YANGZHOU, China -- It's hard to escape Jiang Zemin: China's most powerful man dominates the television news; his most trivial meetings are reported on the front pages of every newspaper. His speeches are required reading for the 53 million members of China's Communist Party.
But look for traces of Mr. Jiang's past in his hometown, and he vanishes.
The schools that he attended here have no special plaques. A book published in 1993 profiling Yangzhou's famous native sons omits any mention of him -- although Mr. Jiang was already China's president, commander in chief and general secretary of the Communist Party.
"We wanted to put up a memorial, but Comrade Jiang won't allow us to erect one until after he retires," a local official confided.
"He thinks it will attract too much attention. He doesn't want to be accused of starting a personality cult."
That is the ultra-caution that China has come to expect of Mr. Jiang, a 68-year-old career party official who has emerged over the past few months as China's first among equals. Even as he moves out from the shadows of his patrons, Mr. Jiang seems to remain at heart a small-town technocrat, someone who prefers caution to boldness.
His reluctance to stand out parallels the tentative air surrounding Mr. Jiang's power, as if neither he nor his hometown can really be- lieve that he is in line to succeed the ailing Deng Xiaoping as China's supreme leader -- or that he will last long enough to warrant more than a passing mention in sleepy Yangzhou.
Although Mr. Jiang is little known outside China, his political success and his policies matter a great deal to the rest of the world. Foreign investors have bet billions on China's continued move to a market economy, while neighboring countries wonder how Mr. Jiang's China will handle regional tensions over territory and resources.
But little in Mr. Jiang's past suggests a person of inspiring imagination. Mr. Jiang is now recognized as politically adept. But his imprint on national policies is, at best, uninspiring.
"In the past year he's shown himself to be more aggressive, more self-confident," said Tai Ming Cheung, a political analyst with Kim Eng Securities in Hong Kong. "But it's all been maneuvering.
"When it comes to substance or vision, he fails."
Vision never seemed to be in the cards for Mr. Jiang. Born into a prominent family, he might well have ended up as a victim of Communists had it not been for a rebellious uncle.
The uncle, Jiang Shangqing, broke away from his family of doctors and teachers -- the sort of people persecuted by the Communist Party after it took power in 1949 -- and joined the party. The year was 1930, and the party was still an organization confined to the underground. Nine years later, he was killed in a guerrilla skirmish, making him an early "revolutionary martyr."
Son of a martyr
It also meant that Jiang Shangqing died without a son, a catastrophe in traditional China. So Jiang Zemin's father gave up his 13-year-old son to be adopted by Jiang Shangqing's side of the family. This turned young Jiang Zemin into the son of a revolutionary martyr, the Communist equivalent of being born into the aristocracy.
From then on, Mr. Jiang's life was set. He was taken under the wing of a series of Communist figures who would go on to run the People's Republic of China. Under their tutelage, he attended a university in Shanghai and joined the party in 1946, a year before graduating with a degree in electrical engineering.
After 1949, he became party secretary of a Shanghai factory, followed by promotion to a low-level job in a Beijing ministry, then on to Moscow for the requisite tutoring in Stalinist economics. From there he went to positions in China's heavy industry and eventually back to Shanghai. His loyalty to Mr. Deng and the aid of a friend from his university days helped him become mayor and party secretary of Shanghai, from 1985 to 1989.
He was anything but popular there, earning the nickname "flower vase" -- for looking pretty but serving no function. While other cities expanded, Shanghai seemed moribund.
In 1989, however, Mr. Deng was confronted with mass anti-government protests -- his greatest crisis since taking power in 1978. While the army was called in to crush demonstrations near Beijing's Tiananmen Square, protests in Mr. Jiang's Shanghai were suppressed without bloodshed.
Mr. Jiang sided early with Mr. Deng against a party faction that advocated political reforms and negotiations with the student-led protesters. Soon after martial law was imposed, he closed an independent-minded newspaper in his city, noting in a Politburo meeting: "It's been almost 40 years since we founded our country. When have we ever had an independent newspaper?"
No one's first choice
When the Tiananmen Square demonstrations were finally crushed with the loss of hundreds of lives, Mr. Deng purged the top ranks of the party. Although no one's first choice, Mr. Jiang was asked to take over as general secretary in June 1989 because he was untainted by the crackdown and appealed to the elderly leaders.
Mr. Jiang's wife wept over the appointment, fearing that he would be swept up in Beijing's palace intrigues.
Mr. Jiang said to a diplomat: "I wasn't prepared for this nomination. I will stay in the central government between two and four years. I'll just try not to make any big mistakes."
Little wonder, then, that many observers pegged him as a transitional figure, one who would be easily toppled when Mr. Deng dies.
Mr. Jiang took over in 1989 as head of the party's Central Military Commission, making him commander in chief.
And in 1993, he became China's president.
However, these positions seemed only to reinforce the fact that Mr. Jiang had no real power base, that he was collecting titles and relying on Mr. Deng for legitimacy.
But as Mr. Deng had noted a few years earlier, Mr. Jiang was crafty. He quickly began cultivating ties with the military -- the kingmaker in China's political system -- and slowly began promoting his cronies from Shanghai to top positions in Beijing.
But, with Mr. Deng still on the scene, Mr. Jiang was often humiliated for his caution.
In 1992, he stymied efforts to publicize Mr. Deng's call for faster economic reforms. Only after Mr. Deng's new campaign to modernize China's economy became unstoppable did Mr. Jiang do a 180-degree turn, earning a new nickname: "Mr. Weathervane."
Suspicious of reform
As Mr. Deng has faded from the scene, Mr. Jiang's suspicion of reform has crept back into view.
Since at least last fall, as Mr. Deng's influence diminished along with his health -- he is now reportedly too ill to read or leave the hospital -- Mr. Jiang has put a brake on major economic reforms, instead putting emphasis on discipline inside the Communist Party and encouraging social stability by arresting dissidents.
He also has styled himself as China's top corruption fighter, a populist
move that has allowed him to isolate enemies, such as the former party boss of Beijing who lost his post in late April.
"To be honest, we underestimated Jiang Zemin," said Liu Ren-Kai, author of a book on China's leadership.
"He's much more politically astute than we gave him credit for. He was seen as not lasting after Deng dies.
"Now we believe he'll last at least two years, until the next party congress in 1997."
"He doesn't seem to have an agenda or a world view, either domestic or international," said David Shambaugh, professor of Chinese politics at London University. "He seizes on issues tactically."
Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Mr. Jiang is hardly an inspiring figure.
In a recent poll that asked people whom they respected politically, Mr. Jiang was picked by less than 1 percent of the respondents; Mr. Deng, Nelson Mandela and Mao Tse-tung scored significantly higher.
Omnipresent in the media
Yet, with the propaganda apparatus firmly in his hands, Mr. Jiang is omnipresent on the evening news, sitting uncomfortably in overstuffed chairs as he meets heads of state or foreign investors -- the implicit message being always that Mr. Jiang must be doing a great job or why would all these foreigners be seeking an audience with him?
Short and with a penchant for platform loafers, Mr. Jiang maintains some of the endearing qualities of a small-town native.
Like a low-level Chinese apparatchik, Mr. Jiang wears long underwear until late in the spring, with foreign visitors noting the cotton or silk undergarments bulging under his ill-fitting suits.
Every once in a while, the state-run media tries to make Mr. Jiang appear more human, relating in a 1993 report, for example, how he belted out songs on the airplane's public-address system when returning from a summit in the United States. He also patronizes the Peking Opera, appearing recently on television wagging his finger at the cast to explain a point.
But even in Yangzhou, he doesn't cause much excitement. An attendant at a big department store shook her head when asked if local people were proud that Mr. Jiang was the country's leader.
"We'll be proud once he does something, once he makes his mark on the country," she said. "The main thing I like is that he hasn't built a memorial to himself.
"After Mao and Deng, this represents some sort of progress, don't you think?"