The Dictator’s Smile7 min read

Jiang Zemin’s intriguing appearance on American TV – Frank Beyer


On June 4th 1989, the day before he took the famous ‘Tank Man’ photo, American photographer Jeff Widener was in Tiananmen square. Soldiers were arriving to break up the pro-democracy protests that had been ongoing since April. Widener saw an armoured car hurtle into some steel barriers erected by the protesters and crash. He imagined himself getting the Pulitzer prize if he could take a photo of what happened next. He walked towards the chaos, but a brick smashed his camera and ripped his forehead open. A soldier appeared from out of the prone vehicle with his hands raised, surrendering, but protesters descended on him with bricks and pipes. Standing there with blood dripping into his eyes, Widener woke up to the fact that the mob could be about to beat the soldier to death, and balked at taking a photo. He got the hell out of there.

The next day, Jeff was on the roof of the Beijing Hotel when a line of tanks moved towards Tiananmen square below. He had to get a photo of this and it was a near thing – he was almost out of film. He felt like a NBA star with one shot to win the game: make it and you’re a hero, miss it and you’ll regret it forever. Then it happened. A man, a lone protester, walked in front of the line of tanks, and Jeff took the photo which would become famous.

In August 2000 in a 60 Minutes interview, respected CBS journalist Mike Wallace showed the then Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, Widener’s famous photo of the lone man standing in front of a line of tanks. “What happened to this man?” Wallace asked. Jiang replied that the man wasn’t killed: the tanks stopped, they didn’t run him down. Wallace put to Jiang the Western narrative that this man was a courageous hero. “When I see that picture of that one young man in front of a tank in Tiananmen square,” he said, “that is what dictatorship means. It’s a wonderful symbol, it hits right to my heart about dictatorship in China.” Wallace wanted to get Jiang to say that he too thought the man courageous, but failed. “I’m very willing to answer these questions,” Jiang said, but avoided answering all the same. Nevertheless, Jiang didn’t shirk talking politics in the interview, unlike his predecessor Deng Xiaoping, interviewed by Wallace in 1986, who only wanted to talk about the economy.

The interview took place at the Beidaihe government compound on the coastline east of Beijing. Jiang Zemin was soon to set off on an official trip to America. His stated aim in giving this interview was to let Americans better understand China and improve Sino-US relations, which had been rocked in the previous year. Two US B-52 stealth bombers had flown a NATO mission over Belgrade, Yugoslavia and bombed the Chinese embassy there. President Clinton said it was a mistake, but the Chinese did not believe this. The interview aired as a fifteen-minute segment on Sunday night 60 Minutes, then a one-hour version of it was shown on C-Span on the Monday. Wallace and producer Robert Anderson also appeared on C-Span’s Washington Journal show, to discuss the interview.

Throughout his interview, Jiang smiled a lot. Was the smile genuine or a tactic? Before he agreed to this “ask me anything” interview, Jiang wanted to see other interviews Wallace had done with world leaders. So 60 Minutes sent through an interview with Iranian President Rafsanjani, who smiled when asked very difficult questions about whether Iran was trying to build a nuclear bomb. In the interview, Wallace came off less as a journalist and more like a US government official doing an interrogation.

A harsh judge could conclude that Jiang was a slippery dictator, smiling his way through questions about the abuses of his regime. Indeed, there was something of the snake in his appearance, with slicked-back hair and retractable lips. When asked about internet sites blocked in China, he gave a crafty answer, saying there were many harmful things on the Internet, such as pornography. Wallace was equal to this and pointed out the BBC and Washington Post were both banned, but didn’t contain pornography. Jiang dropped the act and said these sites had negative articles about China, which weren’t helpful. His aids were apparently furious afterwards, and wanted to know why Wallace asked him about Tank Man. Jiang wasn’t in charge when that happened, they pointed out.

Or we could interpret Jiang’s smile another way, that he was genuinely happy at the opportunity to talk to an American journalist. The interview featured frequent yet civil disagreements, but went way overtime, indicating that Jiang was enjoying it. He liked to be challenged, safe in the knowledge that a foreign interviewer couldn’t understand the complexities of China, so Jiang’s position was morally unassailable. At times Jiang’s answers were expansive: maybe he couldn’t express himself as freely with Chinese interviewers? With Wallace, he could use his English and he even launched into song at one point. It was as if Jiang was the victim of his own dictatorship. At times, he looked like a man bored with the bureaucracy and etiquette of his own Party. Here, finally, was his chance to shine. In a famous outburst, Jiang later scolded journalists in Hong Kong for being “naive” and not up to Wallace’s level.

For Jiang, the interview was something of a PR success. Mike Wallace himself reported that in contrast to American ex-president Richard Nixon – who had come across in the famous BBC Frost/Nixon interviews in 1977 as a defeated, drained man – Jiang Zemin came across well. Wallace even said afterwards that Jiang was a fascinating man, and that nothing but good could come out of such a sitdown with him. 60 Minutes’ producer, Robert Anderson, had asked Jiang to make his answers short and concise, in an effort to dissuade him from launching into policy proclamations. At one stage, Wallace reminds Jiang of this, and Jiang, not to be beaten, fires back that his answers are only as long as Wallace’s questions.

The largest newspaper in China, The People’s Daily, did report on the interview. They didn’t publish Wallace’s questions, merely Jiang Zemin’s utterances on Sino-US relations, socialism with Chinese characteristics, Falun Gong and corruption. The report was written in boilerplate Party-line style, with no mention of the Tiananmen massacre or the Tank Man. It is fairly safe to assume that the interview was not aired on Chinese television. In 2012, Foreign Policy magazine scored the interview as a win for Wallace, claiming that Jiang had squirmed when Wallace told him he was a dictator.

After Jiang stepped down in 2002, Hu Jintao assumed the presidency. Hu kept a straight face, no matter what, and the Western media couldn’t get much entertainment out of him. If Mike Wallace had interviewed Hu, he might have put to him a question similar to the one he asked Nixon in 1968: “There has been so much talk in recent years of style and charisma, no one has suggested that either you or your opponent Hubert Humphrey have very much of it. Have you given no thought to this aspect of campaigning and of leading?” Another good question from Wallace. In contrast to Nixon and Hu, Jiang certainly put a lot of thought and effort into the charismatic aspect of leadership. The now nonagenarian Jiang, nicknamed the toad, is fondly remembered for his extraverted performances, and his encounter with Wallace is no exception. ∎


Header image: Commander in Chief, US Pacific Command Adm. Joseph W. Prueher (right), escorts Chinese President Jiang Zemin (left) Oct. 27, 1997, from Wikimedia Commons.