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