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.

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.

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.

The day-to-day military affairs are being run by Jiang’s loyalists. Hu has shown no interest in cultivating relationships with senior military officers. It was different with Jiang, who always found time to socialize with military commanders and would personally meet and talk with every newly decorated major. He had no combat experiences, but adroitly mobilized the Army to support earthquake- or flood-relief efforts.

Hu possesses no such talent. During the Wenchuan earthquake in May 2008, when Army rescuers refused to take orders, Hu’s ally, Premier Wen Jiabao, could only bark helplessly. Hu simply lacked the credibility.

Throughout history, the Chinese leadership has never allowed generals to take over state affairs. However, when different factions jockey fiercely for power, the support of the military is crucial. Without the backing of the military, the party head has to take every step cautiously and humbly.

Hu has drawn lessons from his predecessors, former party General Secretaries Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Mr. Yaobang was known for his courageous efforts to reform the Chinese political systems and Mr. Zhao for his refusal to suppress the students’ peaceful demonstrations with force. However, both were forced out.

As a result, Hu always keeps an image of being a cautious leader – often he’s cast as being boring and humorless. However, his cautious appearance can also be misleading, masking his true political instincts and aspiration.

One cannot overlook his uncanny ability to navigate the many political intrigues and maneuverings. Restraint is his ultimate virtue. In the past, this self-discipline has enabled him to rise from a humble technician to a well-behaved and well-loved head of the Communist Youth League, the party secretary of a poverty-stricken province, a controversial emissary to Tibet, and then the No. 1 of China. He has manifested humility, patience, and industriousness, all of which are deemed to be virtues in Chinese culture.

During his reign, Hu has quietly promoted his own people to various important government posts. In the name of eliminating corruption, he has purged outspoken political rivals. He has also initiated many populist programs to alleviate social and economic inequality.
Hu’s survival instinct means that he is neither a liberal nor a conservative. He’s a pragmatist.

While Deng Xiaoping proposed “The Four Cardinal Principles” and Jiang Zeming came up with “Three Represents” which legitimized the inclusion of capitalists and private enterpreneurs in the Communist Party, Hu advocates building a “harmonious society.” He understands that the days are gone when the party can maintain political stability with the muzzle of a gun.

He needs a softer approach to resolving social conflicts. In addition, he also knows that overly ambitious political reforms could disrupt the power balance, offending the political elite. If not prudent, he could trigger an implosion of all pent-up conflicts. The party and the country could easily slip away from him.

In China, the word harmony consists of two characters, amicable and accord. It originates from the Confucian ideology that “Harmony is the most precious thing, preceding all priorities.” Hu interprets it as “no self-initiated disruptive attempts” or to be exact, “no major changes.”

Politically, Hu expresses no intention of being a historical giant who aspires to save the world. All he apparently wants is to complete his tenure peacefully and smoothly. He doesn’t crave for posthumous fame. He pursues stability in the present, even though it means cracking down on free speech and worsening China’s human rights record. He might occasionally sway to the left or the right, but his real aim is the middle, which makes him feel safe. His political inertia disarms and appeases Jiang and his loyalists.

Economically, harmony means “doing business and make money amicably, without too much intervention” because economic vitality is key to preserving China’s one-party rule.

Following the demise of Mao Zedong, whose sole obsession in life was revolution, all future generations of Communist leaders made economic development an irrevocable priority. At present, no other political party in the world has devoted more of its energy to generating wealth than the Chinese Communist Party.

As a result, no citizens in the world are arguably as greedy as the Chinese. Under Mao, people believed that “With truth and justice on your side, you can go anywhere.” Nowadays, the guiding principle is “With money in your pocket, you can go anywhere.” Or to be precise, “With money, you can rule the world.”

The country’s high-level economic development will give Hu a temporary reprieve, but for a political party money cannot solve all problems. The economy will follow its own cycle of ups and downs. Besides, the economic boom has further exacerbated social conflicts.

More and more Chinese nationals are waking up to new ideas. Dissent is growing. The greed of corrupted officials knows no bounds. Senior leaders are enjoying lifelong privileges and their children are in control of a vast amount of China’s wealth.

Meanwhile, to pursue higher economic growth, the government has transferred most of the state assets it has accumulated since 1949 and is consuming resources such as land and the environment without any consideration for future generations.

Internationally, China’s increasingly arrogant behavior and rhetoric, typical of a nouveau riche, have started to backfire. Can Hu’s “model of harmony” – a seemingly successful model of rapid economic growth – be transformed into a political model that coexists with the West? It remains to be seen.

Barring a major controversy or economic recession, Hu will probably end his term harmoniously. But his successor will probably need more than just luck to build harmony in China.

Pin Ho is founder of Mirror Books Ltd., a Chinese-language publishing house in New York, which will publish “Hu Is Leading China, A Biography of Chinese President Hu Jintao,” in July. Wen Huang is a Chicago writer and translator.

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