The Enigmatic Hu Jintao and His Meteoric Ascendancy

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 17, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Enigmatic Hu Jintao and His Meteoric Ascendancy


Byline: Steven W. Mosher, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Who is the President of China?" the late-night 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 anti-riot 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. …

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