The enig­matic Hu Jin­tao and his me­te­oric rise in China

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

“Who is the Pres­i­dent of China?” the latenight talk show hosts joked with their au­di­ences when a Com­mu­nist cadre by the name of Hu Jin­tao vaulted into the pres­i­dency of China in 2003. “Hu is the Pres­i­dent.” “That’s what I want to know. Who?”

But be­hind the ban­ter lurks a se­ri­ous ques­tion. Just who is this mys­te­ri­ous fig­ure Hu Jin­tao any­way? Is he the kind-hearted Con­fu­cian­ist tech­no­crat por­trayed in the of­fi­cial Chi­nese press? Or is he a hard-line Com­mu­nist cadre who once donned mil­i­tary hel­met and an­tiriot gear for a “crush-the-re­bel­lion” cam­paign in Ti­bet in March 1989 that set the stage for the Tianan­men Mas­sacre a cou­ple of months later?

Vet­eran si­nol­o­gist Willy Lam, in his in­sight­ful new book, traces Mr. Hu’s me­te­oric rise in the ranks to that piv­otal mo­ment in Lhasa. The 47-year-old cadre was then serv­ing as Com­mu­nist Party boss cum po­lit­i­cal com­mis­sar of the Ti­bet Peo­ple’s Armed Po­lice (PAP) Dis­trict. When anti-Han Chi­nese and anti-Com­mu­nist demon­stra­tions broke out in the spring of 1989, Mr. Hu or­dered the po­lice and the mil­i­tary to re­store or­der. More than 60 Ti­betans were killed, and count­less more wounded, in the bloody sup­pres­sion that fol­lowed.

The bru­tal way that Hu Jin­tao crushed the “re­bel­lion” so im­pressed Deng Xiaop­ing, Mr. Lam re­ports, that it be­came “a model for the CCP lead­er­ship’s even more ruth­less crack­down of the democ­racy move­ment in Bei­jing and other cities a few months later.” As for Mr. Hu him­self, he had shown Deng that he was “tough with both fists.” The Party elder in­sisted that this newly dis­cov­ered “big tal­ent” be made a mem­ber of the Polit­buro Stand­ing com­mit­tee in late 1992. Mr. Hu had taken a “he­li­copter ride to the top,” as the Chi­nese say, a ride pur­chased in the coin of corpses.

Vir­tu­ally overnight, he had be­come then-Party chief Jiang Zemin’s heir ap­par­ent. Mr. Lam re­ports that he kept a low profile, was care­ful to of­fend no one, de­ferred not just to Mr. Jiang but to oth­ers in se­nior po­si­tions and, in so do­ing, avoided mak­ing mis­takes. In this way he sur­vived for more than a decade as the “core” of the next gen­er­a­tion of lead­er­ship amidst the most Machi­avel­lian and Byzan­tine pol­i­tics in the world.

The for­mal trans­fer of power to Hu Jin­tao and other mem­bers of the “fourth gen­er­a­tion” of lead­er­ship that oc­curred in 2003 in­evitably gave rise to spec­u­la­tion that he may prove a Chi­nese Gor­bachev, open to rad­i­cal eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal re­form.

The record of his first three years, laid out in in­sight­ful de­tail by Mr. Lam, is any­thing but en­cour­ag­ing in this re­gard. He seems in­stead to be an­other Jiang Zemin, a rel­a­tively lack­lus­ter, au­thor­i­tar­ian-minded bu­reau­crat, who will de­vote him­self chiefly to se­cur­ing his own po­si­tion and that of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party. Mr. Lam con­cludes that, “de­spite his mod­er­ate . . . per­sona, Mr. Hu is a quin­tes­sen­tial Marx­ist and CCP cadre who is con­vinced that he owes it to the party to do all he can to en­sure the sur­vival and vi­a­bil­ity of its dogma, and es­pe­cially, the CCP’s rul­ing sta­tus.”

Mr. Hu and his col­leagues fa­vor what Deng Xiaop­ing called “re­form and open­ing” — run­ning China’s econ­omy largely ac­cord­ing to mar­ket prin­ci­ples, ra­tion­al­iz­ing meth­ods of so­cial con­trol, open­ing the coun­try to West­ern trade and in­vest­ment and work­ing to ex­pand China’s hard and soft power abroad.

Mr. Hu, like Deng be­fore him, un­der­stands the cur­rent open­ness to the West as an ef­fort to en­list for- eign­ers to pro­vide the means for the restora­tion of China’s great­ness. He feeds freely on what­ever the­ory or idea seems to him the most prac­ti­cal way to make China a strong and re­spected na­tion, but only so long as it does not com­pro­mise Com­mu­nist Party rule.

Mr. Lam doc­u­ments in dis­cour­ag­ing de­tail the re­cent and tough mea­sures that Mr. Hu has adopted to rein in lib­eral, “pro-West­ern” in­tel­lec­tu­als and jour­nal­ists in China, as well as his ef­forts to clamp down on NGOs, par­tic­u­larly those with ties to the West. He is ac­tively work­ing to fore­stall the kind of civil so­ci­ety that would pro­vide the ba­sis for a more open po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

Hav­ing cut his teeth on Tianan­men, Mr. Hu has few com­punc­tions about us­ing deadly force to meet even mod­est chal­lenges to the Party’s power. The in­fa­mous per­se­cu­tion of the Falun Gong, the Bud­dhist sect whose lead­ers made the mis­take of hold­ing a peace­ful demon­stra­tion out­side of Zhong­nan­hai on April 25, 1999, con­tin­ues on Mr. Hu’s watch. Tens of thou­sands of Falun Gong “prac­ti­tion­ers,” as they call them­selves, have been ar­rested, and the num­ber of those who have died in po­lice cus­tody is said to be in the hun­dreds.

Un­der Hu Jin­tao the Mid­dle King­dom is still an au­to­cratic state, in some re­spects more so than it was at the time of Tianan­men.

Were he alive to­day, Chair­man Mao would not be pleased by the end of egal­i­tar­ian eco­nomics, but he would be greatly mol­li­fied by China’s pros­per­ity, de­lighted by the re­turn of Hong Kong and ec­static at the PLA’s pos­ses­sion of some of the most mod­ern weapons in the world. Mao would also be re­as­sured by the con­tin­u­a­tion of the “peo­ple’s pro­le­tar­ian dic­ta­tor­ship,” even af­ter 20 years of “re­form.”

Chi­nese so­ci­ety, in many im­por­tant re­spects, con­tin­ues to be dom­i­nated by the Party-state. The cen­tral­ized power struc­ture of the PRC, with power de­riv­ing ul­ti­mately from con­trol of the mil­i­tary, con­cen­trated in the hands of a few per­sons, and wielded with­out sig­nif­i­cant in­sti­tu­tional con­straints, re­mains in­tact. The pe­nal code con­tin­ues to be used to main­tain the Com­mu­nist Party in power, and large-scale po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious per­se­cu­tions con­tinue to main­tain the mus­cu­lar tone of the sys­tem. The Party-state con­tin­ues to re­gard the peo­ple as its prop­erty, and so they re­main sub­jects rather than cit­i­zens.

So who is the real Mr. Hu? In Willy Lam’s view, based on his wide and unique ar­ray of sources, China’s pres­i­dent is caught in a para­dox. Hu be­lieves that he can “safe­guard one-party dic­ta­tor­ship and Chi­nese-style so­cial­ism while si­mul­ta­ne­ously seek­ing in­no­va­tion in in­dus­try, trade, and tech­nol­ogy.” And, one might add, su­per­power sta­tus.

Mr. Hu is only the latest in a long line of Chi­nese lead­ers who have held this dystopic vi­sion. Read­ers of “Chi­nese Pol­i­tics in the Hu Jin­tao Era”will­come­away­con­vincedthat he will not be the last.

Steven W. Mosher is the pres­i­dent of the Pop­u­la­tion Re­search In­sti­tute and the au­thor of “Hege­mon: China’s Plan to Dom­i­nate Asia and the World” (En­counter Books).

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