At the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, on November 12, 2002 a remarkable transition took place. For pretty much the first time ever, power in China changed hands with something approaching the regularity with which it happens in most western nations. A new team of leaders was presented to the assembled press, and Hu Jintao was installed as the new General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. In March 2003, Hu was duly elected as President of the People's Republic of China. There were four votes against him and two abstentions, making for a huge majority. He has also now (as of September 20, 2004) taken over as chairman of the Central Military Commission from Jiang Zemin; it is worth noting that Jiang continuing to hold this post for almost a full two additional years was seen as both a legitimization of Hu, and also a "brake" on the new leader. In terms of number of people directly ruled, and perhaps these days also in terms of the world economy, the various posts Hu holds make him the most powerful man in the world.
Ancestors are important in China, and Hu Jintao's were tea traders from Anhui. As a part of this family concern, Hu's father's business was centered in and around Shanghai, where Hu was born in December 1942. After his mother's death, he and his sister moved to Taizhou to live with their grandparents. In 1959 Hu managed to score a place at one of China's elite schools, Qinghua University, where he obtained a bachelor degree in hydropower engineering, graduating in 1964. This was also the year he joined the Party, and stayed on at Qinghua (often seen spelled "Tsinghua" outside China) to do postgraduate work. He also served as a zhengzhi fudaoyuan - a title that means, basically "Ideological Tutor", or political instructor.
In 1968 with the Cultural Revolution in full swing, Mao Zedong called for talented young men and women to "go where the fatherland needs you" - a policy both of assistance to "backward" provinces, and taking anyone with brains away from their networks where they might have influence. The promised reward was a leg up in the Party. Hu Jintao responded to the Chairman's directive and volunteered for work in the dusty, dry, remote northwestern province of Gansu. He was the Party's man in the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power until 1974 and then a member of the provincial construction commission.
By 1980 the leadership in China had changed hands, and Deng Xiaoping changed the policy for getting on the Party fast track as follows: "more revolutionary, more youthful, more knowledgeable and more specialized". Provincial party secretaries began sending short lists to Beijing - that post in Gansu was held by Song Ping, who showed he was following Beijing's lead by promoting the (relatively) youthful and well educated Hu Jintao to deputy head of the aforementioned commission - jumping several ranks of senior cadres in the process. This kind of seniority at work meant that Hu could no longer be simply a functionary in the local branch of the Communist Youth League (CYL) - and two years later he was duly named secretary of the provincial branch.
Mentors and their protégés in the Party feed off each other's success, and Song Ping again pushed his rising star along by pulling some strings to get Hu Jintao invited to study at the Central Party School in Beijing. This was a kind of Top Gun training institute for the Party's bright young things. An important relationship Hu formed at this school was with Luo Gan, one of his colleagues in the current Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). The PBSC is the ultimate power in China.
Rising through the ranks of the CYL, Hu became first secretary in 1984. At this point in his career, he seemed about to leap spectacularly upward, but instead ran foul of Hu Yaobang, leader of the Party at that time, who preferred firebreathers to Hu's measured calm and studied inoffensiveness. It is worth mentioning here that Hu Yaobang's death was the catalyst for the well-known demonstrations of 1989. Something had to be done with Hu Jintao however, (graduates of the Party School are not allowed to fail) and so he was shipped out to the nightmare that is Guizhou as Party secretary. By all reports Hu Jintao accepted this knock stoically, and went about pressing the flesh. The usual level of corruption and excess at this level would have been even more extremely offensive in Guizhou, China's poorest region, and Hu is reported to have "lived modestly" although reading between the lines this seems to have been mostly achieved by not moving his family to the area, which local cadres took as a bit of a snub. Apart from a "man of the people" reputation, Hu seems to have achieved very little else in Guizhou, and certainly had no solutions for the area's main concern, its economy.
One of the odd things about Tibet is how many of China's officials in the province fall sick to altitude sickness. Although this is a genuine concern in the area, the numbers among the cadre afflicted seriously enough to blag a career change have been high enough to raise eyebrows both in China and among China's many watchers abroad. In June 1988 the Party secretary for Xizang (Chinese for Tibet) was afflicted like so many before him, and the new Party head Zhao Ziyang saw Hu Jintao as an ideal replacement because of his previous experience working in two other "backwards" provinces. This was in no way seen as any kind of "favour". But Song Ping, by this time a member of the PBSC, seeing perhaps an opportunity for redemption, couched his support of the transfer more in terms of his protégé finally "showing his mettle" rather than in Zhao's terms of "horses for courses".
Tibet, however, like so often happens with the weather on the mountains for which she is famous, turned on a storm in the blinking of an eye. December 10, 1988: Hu Jintao is scheduled to arrive in days, and Lhasa erupts into riots which kill one lama and injure a score of others. January 28, 1989: With the death of the Panchen Lama, a grief stricken Lhasa takes to the streets in civil disturbances that last 3 months. March 7, 1989: Beijing has had enough and orders Hu, a man with no military experience (and thus no ties to the Lhasa garrison) who has allowed chaos to reign for what seems like an age, to declare martial law. The precedent this act set for the use of martial law in Beijing 10 weeks later is surely one of history's ironies.
Hu allegedly confessed to a friend at this time that he had to get out. He was going nowhere and way too fast. Altitude sickness struck the Tibet cadres yet again, this time depriving them of their new leader for 5 months of the year, year on year. But Hu's time back in Beijing during this period was certainly not wasted. Old friend Song Ping worked the connections (la guanxi in Chinese), and started putting it about that Hu's problems were not his own, that he'd inherited plenty of messes, had never complained, and was, in short, the kind of "exemplar of Party loyalty" that they needed at head office.
And from zero to hero, in 1992 Hu Jintao was back on the fast track with a rise directly to the top - membership of the PBSC. The importance of patronage in Hu Jintao's initial rise and rebound was a lesson certainly not lost on the man himself - in ten years on the PBSC his greatest achievement has been to remain a constant booster of the top man, Jiang Zemin whilst simultaneously avoiding anything even remotely resembling controversy. He had continued his dedication to ineffectuality in Tibet during his time there, and has given no sign in his two terms on the PBSC of letting that policy waver. He has steadily collected the necessary titles for his current promotion in that time, but done little or nothing of note in the posts that they describe. As vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, for example, his two greatest achievements seem to have been making a speech during the ceremony conferring posthumous honors on the fighter pilot who crashed into the US spyplane, and chairing a group of experts as they set about separating China's military from its various business interests, which was Jiang's project from the get go.
So what does Hu Jintao have as he slides into the top job - yet another task set for him by his latest mentor, the outgoing leader Jiang Zemin?
The answer is, it seems, not much. He is, perhaps, the ultimate "Party man". He has always said "How high?" in response to the command "Jump!" and when asked for further clarification has whispered to his mentor "When should I say I'm coming down?" He will be unable to command much power in the PBSC, but this has the advantage of not making him a threat to the other 6 members as they set about their own empire building. However, words and phrases like patient, modest, team player, consensus builder and shanyu tuanjie tongzhi (Good at unifying the comrades) are used regularly in senior Party circles about him.
The best case scenario seems to be a unifying force, someone who clearly sees the web of guanxi (connections) that runs China, and is able to walk that web with ease, using all the powers of survival he seems to have in spades to represent continuity, and force some kind of consensus from his far more able colleagues. If he hasn't any foreign policy experience (he doesn't outside the detailed briefings all top cadres receive), nor any skill with economics (which is clear from his three provincial postings at Party secretary level), it can be hoped that he will defer to those who do.
The worst case scenario is gridlock in the PBSC as his lack of a personal faction precludes him from action of any sort, yet his personal positional power stymies the actions of others at the top. Without a mentor to pick him back up, it is hard to see this painfully unoriginal man surviving a genuine crisis, like all of China's bad loans coming home to roost at once, a serious currency devaluation, or large-scale civil unrest.
Despite the well stage-managed handover, all of the important questions about the new team are thrown open at this time by the man that is now the leader of a quarter of humanity, Hu Jintao.
Update: 2003 At the close of this year Hu's leadership had seen two real tests: SARS; and a number of significant overseas trips. Some fairly meaningless sackings during SARS played well with the foreign press corps, but meant little inside China. Likewise, although outrageously feted when abroad, Hu's foreign speeches contained absolutely nothing new whatsoever, with the familiar riffs on development and Taiwan. Towards the end of 2003 the word on the street in the capital was the general observation that Hu never appeared on stage in China alone. This confirms the predictions made above and elsewhere that he is trying very hard to give the impression of consultation and unity; but it was interesting to note that the vox pop was that he appeared weak when doing this. As we move into the Year of the Monkey (2004), traditionally a "good year" in Chinese astrology, we also look to be heading towards a bumper year for China watchers. Stay tuned!
Update: 2004 Several widespread protests marked the year inside China; of course seldom a word was breathed about this outside China. Hu seems to have spent the year consolidating, and was not seen to have his fingers on anything in particular. Pressure built during the year, largely from the US, for China to devalue the yuan. China declined to act. A bumper year for trade and China investment; the losses of the SARS period have been completely wiped out by massive and rapid acceleration in almost all sectors. The Athens Olympics afforded China an opportunity to boast, as they ranked second on the medal table, behind only the US. Watch out in 2008!
Update: 2005 A big year for Hu as he travelled overseas frequently to cement the emerging Beijing Consensus. Simply put, many developing countries are becoming wise to the strings that are attached to US and other "1st World" aid. China is now offering an alternative in this area, with no catch except what could be described as the Godfather catch: "someday I will ask something of you." China also acted in 2005 to begin detaching the yuan from its traditional US dollar peg, and the public way in which this was done has some crediting Hu with better international media savvy than his predecessors.
Update: 2006 So many corruption charges, so little time. Finally, the long-awaited strikes against Jiang Zemin's people-still-remining-in-top-places came in 2006. This is regime change as usual in China, and the only difference this time seems to have been the long delay. For the people "on the street" this is seen as a cementing of Hu's personal power, and they await the appointment of a cadre that will owe it all, and thus undying loyalty, to Hu. The timing of some of the "removals" was masterful, co-inciding with such events as the US midterm elections, and it seems in the west no-one but the inveterate China-watchers took any notice at all. In foreign policy, the Beijing Consensus that we spoke of last year is now a reality, and that has made the news in the west. With Russia's internal problems taking up most if its attention, it also now seems that China is the vote needed for the UN Security Council to "take action". A big year for Hu and by extension China watchers.
Update: May 2012 The end nears. Officially, at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Part of China later in this year, Hu will give up his day jobs, and a new president will be selected. But, from the vantage point of this writing, in May 2012, things look very far from simple. Normally worked out far in advance, the composition of the Central Committee (the group surrounding the president) has been thrown into chaos and disarray by the arrest of Bo Xilai, once ironed-on for, at minimum, a senior role in said committee. Unrest is widespread. The internet censorship regime known as the Great Firewall of China has been turned up to 11 for much of 2011 and 2012. The economy, dependant as it is on the twin flows of capital coming in to China to build factories, and goods from those factories being purchased in great quantities by other countries, is faltering (although still growing at an enviable rate compared to First World areas). All-in-all, it promises to be a fascinating and thrilling year for China watchers!
Last updated January 2, 2007.
China's New Rulers: The Secret Files, Andrew J. Nathan & Bruce Gilley, Granta Books, London, ISBN 1-86207-619-7
Articles in China Daily
Vox Pop on the streets of Beijing