Hu Jintao: China's Silent Ruler

By Cody, Philip | The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs, July 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Hu Jintao: China's Silent Ruler


Cody, Philip, The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs


KERRY BROWN: Hu Jintao: China's Silent Ruler. Singapore: World Scientific 2012, 230 pp.

Kerry Brown's Hu Jintao: China's Silent Ruler is an account of China's development under Hu Jintao. Brown narrates the history of the China Hu grew up in, and recounts the major events in Chinese politics leading up to and during his time in office. In an effort to present an accurate portrait of China's leader, Brown carefully traces those major Chinese events in which Hu was either directly or indirectly involved. However, as Brown states accurately, it is a deceptively difficult task to get the true measure of Hu's character. As the title of the book suggests, Hu is not a big talker. Hu's leadership style is completely different to that of his predecessors Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin. The three leaders before Hu-Mao especially-had easily identifiable personal traits and ideas that quickly translated into official Party thought. Hu, on the other hand, rarely offers a glimpse into his personal thinking. When he does speak in public, his speeches are void of individual thought or emotion. He only answers prepared questions from reporters, and, even among other high-ranking politicians in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), he maintains his stolid manner. Hu's egoless style of rule, coupled with Chinese black-box politics, makes it exceedingly difficult to figure out Hu.

Brown opens his book with a chapter on Hu's "personal" life, and quickly establishes the book's theme: although Hu is one of the world's most powerful figures, he keeps an incredibly low profile. Even basic facts such as Hu's birthplace are subject to dispute. In this chapter Brown follows Hu from his time at Tsinghua University as a hydrology student all the way through his rise in the Politburo-China's top organ of power-and eventually to his current position. Although no personal records of Hu's youth exist, Brown draws conclusions about Hu from his experience at Tsinghua and his lack of activity during the Cultural Revolution. Hu graduated just before the revolution began, and would have been exposed to a number of political groups, such as the Red Guard, that could easily damage a politician's standing. Even if Hu was involved in any radical groups, his involvement was low key. As Brown puts it, "his later skills at being a silent, anonymous observer were already apparent at even this stage." Brown also notes that, despite Hu's ability to remain invisible to some, he has been able to make himself stick out to those that matter. Hu made an impression on the elite figures of Song Ping, Hu Yaobang, and Deng Xiaoping, thus gaining their support. Securing the patronage of multiple powerful figures in different areas while simultaneously avoiding making significant enemies is a feat in itself, and directly responsible for Hu's rise to prominence. In China, these types of connections (guanxi) can prove just as important as ability itself. Within the Party, cronyism has a crimping power. Who one knows matters-politicians cannot secure the support necessary to gain influence without the favour of those in power. This system has created powerful and long-lasting factions within the Party, and it is a system that Hu has evidently mastered.

Brown takes his observation of Hu's silence a step further and argues that Hu's approach is in fact largely responsible for his success. It is no coincidence that Hu has never slipped up and hinted at personal inclination in all his years in politics. Since his time at Tsinghua, Hu has demonstrated immense self-control and discipline to regulate his public image. Hu affiliated with multiple factions, yet was not tied down by any of them. This may be because Hu has never put himself in a position where he has to declare allegiance. In addition, Hu's absence from certain other groups has also benefited him. Brown cites this clever strategy as a reason for Hu's rapid ascent to power. By the age of 50, Hu had already entered the Standing Committee of the Politburo. …

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