Hu’s visit spot­lights China’s two faces

Di­vided author­ity can pose diplo­matic chal­lenges

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY AN­DREW HIG­GINS

hong kong — When Hu Jin­tao vis­its theUnited States on Tues­day, he’ll have a re­gal en­tourage of aides, body­guards and lim­ou­sines. But the Chi­nese leader will leave be­hind in Bei­jing the most po­tent totem of his power: the ti­tle of gen­eral sec­re­tary of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party.

He’s not giv­ing up his day job as head of the world’s largest po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion, but dur­ing his four-day U.S. trip, he’ll as­sume an al­ter­na­tive iden­tity. He’ll be greeted at the White House and a Chicago auto-parts fac­tory as Mr. Pres­i­dent, a made-for-ex­port alias used mostly for en­coun­ters with for­eign­ers.

The mor­ph­ing of roles flows from the pro­to­col of his mis­sion. Hu trav­els to the United States to rep­re­sent China as a nation, not just its rul­ing party. But the shift ob­scures the true na­ture, and also cu­ri­ous lim­i­ta­tions, of Hu’s author­ity — his stew­ard­ship of a sprawl­ing party ap­pa­ra­tus that stands above all for­mal in­sti­tu­tions of govern­ment but is no longer a rigid mono­lith obe­di­ent to a sin­gle leader. It also helps ex­plain why Washington of­ten has so much trou­ble fig­ur­ing out who is mak­ing de­ci­sions in Bei­jing and why.

At a time when China looms in­creas­ingly large in U.S. eco­nomic and se­cu­rity con­cerns, the dis­tri­bu­tion of power in Bei­jing, as well as in Washington, will de­cide whether the pledges of co­op­er­a­tion that will be made next week by Pres­i­dent Obama and the Chi­nese leader take solid form, or quickly dis­solve, as many did af­ter Obama’s trip to Bei­jing in Novem­ber 2009.

Af­ter a tense year that saw fre­quent ver­bal clashes be­tween Washington and Bei­jing on ev­ery­thing from trade and cur­rency to North Korea and the South China Sea, Hu is seek­ing to reaf­firm China’s po­si­tion as a ris­ing power but

also to calm fears over its in­ten­tions. The trip “is in­tended to put the tooth­paste back in the tube and sta­bi­lize the re­la­tion­ship,” said Aaron Fried­berg, a Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor and a for­mer se­cu­rity af­fairs ad­viser to Vice Pres­i­dent Dick Cheney.

As China has grown stronger and wealth­ier, how­ever, its lead­er­ship has grown more dif­fuse and harder to lo­cate, and in some ways even weaker.

“China is no longer ruled by a strong man a la Mao [Ze­dong] or Deng Xiaop­ing, but by a col­lec­tive oli­garchy,” said Su­san Shirk, a deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of state in the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The dif­fu­sion of author­ity, which has ac­cel­er­ated steadily since the death of Deng in 1997, re­flects both the grow­ing com­plex­ity of so­ci­ety and gov­er­nance and the per­son­al­i­ties of se­nior lead­ers forged not by rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gle, but by the give-and­take of bureau­cratic con­sen­sus.

The party, with some 80 mil­lion mem­bers, still blan­kets China and swiftly snuffs out di­rect chal­lenges to its author­ity, but is it­self a col­lec­tion of dif­fer­ent and of­ten com­pet­ing in­ter­ests. It is not held to­gether by ide­ol­ogy but by the glue of na­tion­al­ism, a force that ranges from low-key pride in China’s past and cur­rent achieve­ments to stri­dent jin­go­ism.

“ The U.S. al­ways hoped that China would be­come more di­ver­si­fied,” said Jin Can­rong, vice dean of the School of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies at Peo­ple’s Uni­ver­sity in Bei­jing. This is now hap­pen­ing, and the United States “ has got to get used to it.” Com­pet­ing voices mean that Chi­nese de­ci­sion-mak­ing on for­eign pol­icy “will be more and more like that in the U.S. in the fu­ture.”

A big dif­fer­ence, how­ever, is that some of China’s most pow­er­ful voices are heard only in se­cret. “ This is one of the great frus­tra­tions and para­doxes about China,” Shirk said. “It has a vi­brant mar­ket econ­omy that is open to the world, but a de­ci­sion­mak­ing process that is very, very opaque.”

Power struc­ture

Amer­ica’s con­fu­sion ex­tends to Hu him­self, who stands at the apex of a highly cen­tral­ized party struc­ture but is some­times kept in the dark and even de­fied by those he nom­i­nally con­trols, par­tic­u­larly the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army. In a meet­ing last Tues­day with vis­it­ing De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates in Bei­jing’s Great Hall of the Peo­ple, for ex­am­ple, Hu seemed un­aware that his mil­i­tary had just tested a stealth fighter jet. “Is this true?,” he asked De­fense Min­is­ter Liang Guan­glie, ac­cord­ing to a se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial.

On North Korea, Chi­nese pol­icy is guided by clear na­tional in­ter­ests, such as a de­sire to pre­vent a tidal wave of des­per­ate refugees crash­ing across its border, but also by long and in­ti­mate re­la­tions be­tween China’s Com­mu­nist Party and the Korean Work­ers’ Party. Bei­jing’s day-to­day deal­ings with Py­ongyang are han­dled not by the For­eign Min­istry but by the party’s In­ter­na­tional Li­ai­son Depart­ment.

“For us, China’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing on North Korea was al­ways a black box. There was the party, the For­eign Min­istry and the mil­i­tary,” re­called Vic­tor Cha, who served as a Korea ex­pert on the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil in the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and trav­eled to Bei­jing for now-sus­pended six-party talks on Py­ongyang’s nu­clear pro­gram. Chi­nese di­plo­mats “are the ones that show up at the ta­ble, but I don’t think they steer over­all pol­icy.”

U.S. of­fi­cials, Cha said, have fre­quent and of­ten con­struc­tive con­tacts on North Korea with the Chi­nese For­eign Min­istry but none with the party depart­ment di­rectly re­spon­si­ble. “I don’t re­call ever meet­ing the party,” said Cha, a se­nior fel­low at Washington’s Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

There is also a ca­coph­ony of views on cur­rency pol­icy, which, de­spite some changes, Washington in­sists is still un­fairly skewed to boost Chi­nese ex­ports and which will likely be a ma­jor is­sue dur­ing Hu’s visit. The Peo­ple’s Bank of China, the coun­try’s cen­tral bank, fa­vors a stronger yuan, some­thing the U.S. has long de­manded. This would, among other things, help calm in­fla­tion, now a ma­jor con­cern for lead­ers, by re­duc­ing the price of for­eign foods and other im­ports. But the cen­tral bank has lit­tle of the in­de­pen­dence en­joyed by the U.S. Fed­eral Re­serve to fix pol­icy.

The Com­merce Min­istry, fo­cused on keep­ing China’s ex­port jug­ger­naut roar­ing, fiercely re­sists any sharp rise in the value of the Chi­nese cur­rency, which would make Chi­nese goods more ex­pen­sive abroad. It casts it­self as a bul­wark of pa­tri­o­tism against for­eign pres­sure.

The State Coun­cil, or cabi­net, ad­ju­di­cates, but the fi­nal de­ci­sion is thought to rest with the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee of the Polit­buro, whose agenda, de­lib­er­a­tions and de­ci­sions are se­cret. “We have a pretty good han­dle” on the gen­eral de­ci­sion-mak­ing process, said Vic­tor Shih, a scholar of China’s po­lit­i­cal econ­omy at North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity, “ but no­body can know who makes a par­tic­u­lar de­ci­sion.”

‘A lot of play­ers’

The party and state of­ten over­lap, as in the case ofHu, who, like his pre­de­ces­sor, Jiang Zemin, is both gen­eral sec­re­tary and “state chair­man,” a ti­tle that China ren­ders into English as “pres­i­dent.” He’s also head of the Cen­tral Mil­i­tary Af­fairs Com­mis­sion, a party body that is far more im­por­tant than the largely pow­er­less De­fense Min­istry, which hosted Gates’s trip to China.

The mix­ing of func­tions makes it dif­fi­cult for out­siders to lo­cate where ex­actly pol­icy is set, par­tic­u­larly as the party, while far re­moved from its Marx­ist roots, re­tains many of the se­cre­tive habits of its ori­gins as an un­der­ground or­ga­ni­za­tion. The re­cent ap­point­ment of a high-rank­ing of­fi­cial as party sec­re­tary for the For­eign Min­istry, for ex­am­ple, spurred de­bate among tea-leaf­read­ing China watch­ers over whether he, or the min­is­ter, is re­ally in charge.

“ The re­al­ity is that in for­eign af­fairs, as in other ar­eas, there are a lot of play­ers. Co­or­di­na­tion is not their strong suit,” said Ken­neth Lieberthal, a scholar at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion who served as a China ex­pert in the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Both Bei­jing and Washington hope that Hu’s visit will soothe re­cent ten­sions that, ac­cord­ing to Jia Qing­guo, vice dean of Pek­ing Uni­ver­sity’s School of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, left both sides wor­ried about the risk of “more and big­ger con­flicts” in the fu­ture.

But with Hu due to step down next year in fa­vor of Xi Jin­ping, a fel­low mem­ber of the Polit­buro Stand­ing Com­mit­tee, com­mit­ments made in Washington next week could buckle un­der the pres­sure of a po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion that may em­bolden more na­tion­al­ist, anti-Amer­i­can forces.

China’s se­nior lead­ers are all “very cau­tious” and don’t want un­scripted up­sets, said Fried­berg, the Prince­ton pro­fes­sor. But in a sys­tem that is closed but also sur­pris­ingly open to com­pet­ing pres­sures, in­clud­ing pub­lic opin­ion, “maybe be­ing as­sertive, un­apolo­getic and tru­cu­lent is the best, most cau­tious place for them to be.” Re­searcher Zhang Jie in Bei­jing con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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