LOS ANGELES — Extreme conservatives would have you simply bomb ’em; extreme liberals would simply have you love ’em. Real life, though, often comes down to a difficult choice between questionable alternatives. And when the issue relates to how to relate to more than a 1.3 billion people, perhaps the only sane choice is to strike a pose somewhere in between: Try to live with them in peace as best as one can by understanding them as best you can.

In this spirit, try for a moment to forget what you have read about China in the Western media: You know, the predictable Western media stuff; the locked-up dissidents, the intimidation of critics (broad as well as at home, the unsubtle party propaganda machine, the military’s macho muscle-flexing over Taiwan.

It’s all true, to be sure; but try to put this negative picture aside for once and aim at comprehending what many Americans would find utterly astonishing: That in Asia, Jiang Zemin, the current numero uno of China, is thought to be, overall, a big plus.

Now, let’s understand exactly about whom we are talking: Jiang, 76 and not a day younger. This outgoing president of the People’s Republic of China, is no portrait of eternal elegance. With his nonpatrician Mandarin patois and his shovel-and-boots engineer’s education, his speeches betray neither the eloquence of a Churchill, nor his thought the subtlety of a Nehru.

But there is more to this former mayor of Shanghai (which after Hong Kong is China’s most Western city) than meets the eye — or ear. And this is why U.S. President George W. Bush was right to have offered Jiang the dream photo-op for which he has long pined: an invitation to mosey down to the Bush ranch in Texas and flip a steer burger or two on the barbecue. Only Bush’s fourth guest so far — after Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah — Jiang is his most important to date.

It is this middle-class backyard barbecue image, of course, that the crafty handlers of Jiang so want to stick on the world’s memory board as he nears the end of the long transition march to 2003, when power defers to the next generation of Chinese leaders. Image is not everything, of course. Barbecues won’t be sufficient to deflect Jiang and his inner circle from shaping policies in their own national interests (probably forever nationalistic on Taiwan, not so much that way on Tibet where compromise may be in the air).

But these latter-day Communists are not doctrinal purists; many would blush (privately) at the absurd proposition that Mao’s “Little Red Book” can remotely compete with Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” as the better contemporary economic road map. That’s why even as his successors are looking to come to power, Jiang and his crowd aren’t simply going to go away: It tells you a lot, for instance, that two of his fiercest loyalists are getting top jobs in the party’s Central Committee. Thus, Hu Jintao, 59, is to inherit the throne, but when he looks over his shoulder, he will see Jiang hovering about like a self-appointed guardian angel.

For the Chinese, we now understand, are eager for a seamless, global confidence-building transfer of power; they are keenly aware that bloodless change has been far from the norm in Chinese politics. Indeed, colossal wastes of human talent (the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward, Tiananmen massacre) have been staples of China’s unhealthy political diet. That sort of messiness is not good for the economy or for Chinese “bidness,” as they say in Texas.

The Chinese want no more nonsense. That’s why, in organizing Jiang’s transition, they have taken a leaf from the nation-building page of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of Singapore, a city-state whose success the Chinese greatly respect. After fully three decades in power (much longer than Jiang), Lee carefully prepared a proper and peaceful transition that would ensure power for the younger generation.

But Lee did not simply disappear into the humid Singaporean sunset, never to be heard from again. Not on your life: A new position was created. They called it senior minister. Guess who got it? And so they call him senior minister today.

None of this transition haiku, as it were, was lost on China’s elders, many of whom went through the awful Cultural Revolution and would rather have to eat Japanese food the rest of their life than go through that again.

To be sure, out of respect for Singapore, and out of their own political uniqueness and arrogance, China’s new leaders are not likely to refer to Jiang as China’s “senior minister.” But that’s the unspoken truth behind the smiles and steer burgers of those Texas-size photo ops.

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