Hu Jintao [Worldbeaters]

New Internationalist, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Hu Jintao [Worldbeaters]


'He hasn't mistimed a single move - largely because he hasn't made one.'

CHINA these days seems to be opting for the cult of 'non-personality'. How else to explain the ascendancy of the colourless 59-year-old Hu Jintao to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party? Hu is the first General Secretary to start his Party career after the victory of Communist forces back in 1949. This former engineering student comes from the elite Tsinghua University and worked for many years as a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Water Conservancy and Power, a background he shares with former hardline premier Li Peng. Hu is firmly in the camp of those who promote the controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River as well as other major megaprojects. Environmentalists beware.

Hu has risen through the ranks as a Party loyalist by 'maintaining a high profile, while keeping his head down', as one wag once described the recipe for success in an entirely different political culture. He joined the Communist Party in his student days in 1964 at the time of the Cultural Revolution. As a model technocrat his political career really began to take off when Deng Xiaoping came to power. This was the era when the bright young career administrator replaced the party zealot as the guiding hand in Chinese political life. Economic reform (without political liberalization) was the order of the day. Hu's rapid rise to power was based on good political instincts. At 39 he rose to become the youngest member of the Party Central Committee. He was the youngest provincial governor in power, just 42 when he took over in Guizhou in 1985.

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His first real loyalty test occurred after he was appointed head of Tibet in 1988. His appointment was greeted with a large demonstration that rocked the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The popular Panchen Lama had lobbied Beijing to put a Tibetan in the post but then died in his monastery under what many regarded as suspicious circumstances. In early March massive demonstrations broke out in Lhasa. Hu's suppression of these demonstrations resulted in the death of between 40 and 130 Tibetans. Hu convinced Beijing to impose martial law. Hundreds of Tibetans were rounded up with many subjected to 'sadistic and horrifying' treatment, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

The crackdown in Lhasa brought to an end a decade-long policy of a more liberal approach to this Chinese colony. Even more ominously it set the tone for the tough line that was to be applied so rigorously by the Party old guard later that year, starting with the slaughter of peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square and then spreading in a wave of ruthless repression across China. …

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