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Hu Jintao: the mysterious man behind China's 'harmonious society'

Hu Jintao’s rise to power in China and style of politics suggests he’s not a liberal or conservative but a pragmatist.

By Pin Ho, Wen Huang / April 15, 2010

New York and Chicago

When President Hu Jintao arrived in Washington this week to attend the Nuclear Security Summit, it was his second visit to the United States. To many in this country, Mr. Hu is still a mystery.

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In fact, many in China still haven’t figured him out eight years after he has taken power: Has Hu really commanded the political power to rule according to his own will? Is he a true conservative or a closet liberal?

As for the first question, one has to go back a little in history. Since the Communist takeover in China in 1949, the road to the paramount position in China used to be paved with land mines.

Nearly all of the designated successors to the nation’s highest post lost their lives to persecution or were detained under house arrest. When Hu became general secretary of the Communist Party of China in 2002, Deng Xiaoping, his mentor who had designated and groomed him for years, had been long gone. So had most of the veteran revolutionaries.

The person at the helm of the country was Jiang Zemin, who had been plucked from obscurity after the Communist old guards brutally cracked down on the pro-democracy student movement of 1989. With his political and media savvy, Mr. Jiang had smartly consolidated his power base during his reign.

At the time of his retirement, his followers even proposed creating a national security committee to institutionalize Jiang’s paramount position. In the end, Jiang reluctantly jettisoned the idea. He understood clearly that the Chinese people, including the 70 million Communist Party members, had long detested the bloody power struggles. People could no longer accept leaders with lifelong tenures. If Jiang dared to go against the current, the gigantic ship of the Communist Party, rotten and riddled with holes, would face the danger of being capsized.

Since Jiang’s retirement, his name has never failed to appear at the top, right beneath Hu, at important events such as the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in 2008 and the 2009 review of troops on the 60th anniversary of Communist China’s founding. Insiders know the name order is not merely ceremonial. There used to be a popular saying: “Deng Xiaoping’s power was felt by his mysterious absence but Jiang Zemin reveals his power by his constant presence.”

During Hu’s first four years in office, many speculated that he consulted with Jiang on all major policy initiatives, including personnel changes.

In other words, this is all part of the deal to which Hu had to consent during the power transfer. Hu had no choice. As general secretary of the Communist Party and chairman of the Military Commission, Hu has hardly any control over the military.