An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Ideological Reorientation under Jiang Zemin: The "Three Representations"

Sep 5, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

The massacre on Tian'anmen Square in June 1989 did not just prove the world that China would not go the way of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc; the PRC also demonstrated that it would not be willing to enter discussions about participation in power. Other requests by the people who had demonstrated in early summer that year were perhaps easier to solve for the Party. These issues were corruption, inflation, rising social inequality, and unfair conditions in the access to education and full citizen rights. The solving of all these problems would be the key to raise the low level of legitimacy the Party experienced in those years.

The launching of several disastrous campaigns, mainly the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, but also the crack-down on Tian'anmen Square had eroded the legitimacy of the CPC. Beyond these elementary factors, the de-ideologization under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s made itself felt in the way that even Party cadres were not much interested in Marxist theory any more. For Deng, rapid economic development was more important than ideology, and with his Southern Tour in early 1992 he put the economic drive above all debates over socialism and capitalism. Even if the economic miracle in the 1990s confirmed Deng's approach, the Party sadly felt that the old enthusiasm for socialism had been replaced by a variety of new ideologies, including individualism, materialism, liberalism, nationalism or adherence to religious sects.

The Party had lost contact to workers and peasants, their old clientele, while new classes had emerged in the shape of urban entrepreneurs, white-collar professionals in state-owned and private enterprises, an urban middle class, and artists and other intellectuals.

Last but not least, the missing of ideological tools encouraged Party cadres to abuse power and accept bribes. In 1995, the supervisory organ of the Party registered more than 2,000 cases of corruption (Wang and Zheng: 353) Qiao Shi 乔石 (1924-2015), at that time President of the National People's Congress, advocated political transparency, and stressed the role of democracy in the system of centralism. During the Third Session of the Eighth National People's Congress (Di ba jie quanguo renmin diaobiao dahui di san ci huiyi 第八屆全国人民代表大会第三次会议) in March 1995 he formulated the buzz phrase of "strengthening the buildup of socialist democracy and legal system" (jiaqiang shehuizhuyi minzhu fazhi jianshe 加强社会主义民主法制建设), and explained that the Party, too, stood under the law of the state. Li Ruihuan 李瑞环 (b. 1934), chairman of the conference of the satellite parties and Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, promised that the lesser parties would support the CPC. To these initiatives, Jiang Zemin had to respond.

The Three Attentions (sanjiang 三讲)

Jiang began in late 1995 an initiative "pay attention to politics" (jiang zhengzhi 讲政治). On a meeting in preparation to the 5th Plenum of the 14th Party Congress in September that year he admonished Party cadres to be serious about political discipline, discretion, and sensitivity. Cadres should not deviate from the Party's aim of serving the people, and concurrently carry out economic and ideological work.

Jiang's initiative was also known as the "three attentions education" (sanjiang jiaoyu 三讲教育). On November 25, 1995, the Renmin ribao 人民日报 published an editorial in which the newspaper explained the content and meaning of the campaign. It included the elements "pay attention to studies" (jiang xuexi 讲学习), "pay attention to politics" (jiang zhengzhi), and "pay attention to righteousness" (jiang zhengqi 讲正气). "Studies" mainly meant studying Deng Xiaoping Theory, but also included ascpects like to acquire more knowledge and to learn more about technology. In the field of politics, Party cadres were to talk about the political orientation, the political standpoint, political discipline (jilü 纪律), the ability to differentiate (jianbieli 鉴别力), and political sharpness (minruixing 敏锐性). When discussing political models (biaoshuai 表率), the participants were to respect the fundamental line of the Party and discuss each method comprehensively and correctly. The aspect of "righteousness" meant that members of the Party were expected to continue holding up the traditions and old work styles used during the revolution and the era of construction, and to consolidate truthfulness, principles and the struggle against aberration and degeneration. The models for such behavior were party spirit (dangxing 党性) and party principles, impartiality (gongzheng wusi 公正无私), steadiness in face of flattery (gangzhi bu'a 刚直不阿) and the accordance of words with deeds (yanxing yizhi 言行一致).

Table 1. The Three Attentions (sanjiang 三讲)
讲学习 jiang xuexi pay attention to studies
讲政治 jiang zhengzhi pay attention to politics
讲正气 jiang zhengqi pay attention to righteousness

In their administrative work, their thoughts, and actions, Party cadres were to stand in unison with the Central Committee and to adhere to the principles of democratic centralism (minzhu jizhong 民主集中).

In October 1996 the Sixth Plenum of the 14th Central Committee (Shisi jie liu Zhong quanhui 十四届六中全会) urged leading cadres to keep to the "three attentions" (san jiang 三讲), namely the topics politics, virtue, and political studies. These three attentions were designed to support economic modernization.

Like in old times, Party cadres of all types were obliged to spend several weeks each year with political studies and to participate in sessions of discussion and self-criticism (ziwo piping 自我批评). These means were aimed at improving the coherence of the Party, increasing the loyalty of cadres, and making them more sensitive for moral issues, in the words of the Resolution, to experience "a pervading education in the spirit and with the style of the Party" (shenke de dangxing dangfeng jiaoyu 深刻的党性党风教育).

The Three Representations (san ge daibiao 三个代表)

In February 2000, during a tour in Guangdong, Jiang Zemin introduced his new political concept of the Three Representations (san ge daibiao 三个代表). According to them, the Party represented throughout the needs for development of the advanced productive forces of China's society, the forward orientation of the advanced culture of China, and the fundamental interests of the large majority of the Chinese people.

Table 2. The Three Representations (san ge daibiao 三个代表)
中国当局的执政党要始终代表 The ruling parties will represent throughout...
中国先进社会生产力的发展要求 the needs for development of the advanced productive forces of China's society
中国先进文化的前进方向 the forward orientation of the advanced culture of China
中国最广大人民的根本利益 the fundamental interests of the large majority of the Chinese people

A year later, Jiang Zemin brought again forward the concept of rule by virtue (yi de zhi guo 以德治国) which was to be combined with the rule of law (yi fa zhi guo 以法治国). While the latter had prevalence, virtue would be a supportive element not just for the building of a strong state, but also of a strong economy. The word "virtue" might be a revival of the ancient Confucian concept of rule by virtue (as formulated by the philosopher Mengzi 孟子, 385-304 BCE). A ruler had to be educated by moral principles and to exhibit a behavior of superior morality, and thus induce all subjects to imitate him. The concept of rule by virtue was at the same time the opposite and supplement to the rule of law, by which evildoers would be deterred from misdoings. The combination of Confucian and legalist elements characterized the politics of imperial China. Yet this did not mean that the Communist Party desired to revive Confucianism as a state ideology.

"Virtue" and "morale" meant proper work styles, living plainly, maintaining a good reputation, sacrificing self-interest for the public good, and serving the people, in one word, "professional ethics": The Party and its cadres should govern in a predictable, transparent, and honest fashion, in other words: There should be not just the rule by law, but the rule of law.

Many middle- and low-level Party cadres remained reserved about Jiang's theory and viewed elements of it like "frugality" or "serving the people" as old-style Maoist slogans, reminding them of ideological figures like the altruistic soldier Lei Feng 雷锋. Jiang's campaign of "cultivating" (jiaohua 教化) Party cadres resembled the many rectification campaigns during the Mao era, and the reanimation of Confucianism and the stress of moral virtues even appeared to be a reflection of Chiang Kai-shek's New Life Movement (xin shenghuo yundong 新生活運動) from the 1930s. Not just Party cadres were lukewarm towards Jiang's educational campaign. Chinese society as a whole was no longer interested in moral indoctrination and was rather occupied with the problems of daily livelihood in a rapidly changing environment.

In the end, the discussion about the behavior of individual Party cadres and the Party in total did not solve the problems. The issue of corruption would only be checkable by overhauling of the existing political institutions.

For Jiang Zemin, the promulgation of the "Three Attentions" and the "Three Represents" were his masterpiece and his contribution to Marxist theory. They bolstered his position in the Party and paved the way for both Hu Jintao's "Harmonious Society" and Xi Jingping's anti-corruption campaign.

Sources/Further reading:
Lai Hongyi (2016), China's Governance Model: Flexibility and Durability of Pragmatic Authoritarianism (London/New York: Routledge).
Wang Gungwu, Zheng Yongnian (2003). Damage Control: The Chinese Communist Party in the Jiang Zemin Era (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press).
“三讲”教育 (
“三个代表” (