Rise to power leaves few clues


China: The man expected to be the next Communist Party leader has given little indication of the direction he would take his country.

February 21, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - President Bush may be more interested in talking with an illustrious graduate of Beijing's Qinghua University, the MIT of China, than to the students and faculty he is scheduled to address tomorrow in a speech to be broadcast on Chinese TV.

The famous alumnus is Hu Jintao (who-gint-OW), who is 59 and favors wire-rimmed glasses and well-cut, Western business suits. For now, he is little known in the West. But if all goes as expected, Hu will take over as general secretary of the Communist Party at its 16th congress meeting in October and lead this nation of 1.3 billion people.

As party leader, Hu would succeed Jiang Zemin. He would oversee an emerging global power with the world's seventh-largest economy, a nuclear arsenal and growing unemployment, rising crime, systemic corruption, a widening income gap and rural unrest. He would have to manage the turbulent relationship with the United States, including the nations' differences over the future of Taiwan.

Anyone looking for clues to Hu's thoughts on democracy or signs that he might be China's long-awaited political reformer is almost guaranteed to be frustrated. In the secretive world of Chinese politics, Hu is the ultimate cipher.

A precocious technocrat, Hu has risen swiftly and quietly through the party ranks while making few known enemies and taking no defining policy positions. Observers describe Hu as a team player who has succeeded, in part, because he is the least objectionable successor to Jiang, 75, who will step down as general secretary this fall and is expected to retire as president next year.

"Everyone can accept him," says Wu Guoguang, a political science professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong. "He is a master of survival." As a journalist for the party's flagship paper, People's Daily, Wu met Hu in the late 1980s when the latter served as the nation's youngest provincial party boss in South China's Guizhou province.

Wu recalls that, even then, Hu was tough to read. The two met briefly at a gathering of writers and newspaper commentators who engaged in satire and political criticism. It was 1988, a year before the Tiananmen Square uprising and a time of growing liberalism in China.

Hu came to the meeting, had dinner and welcomed the writers to the province. Wu recalls him as likable and easygoing.

"Actually, no one expected he would come," Wu says. "Those guys were pretty liberal. Usually they made trouble everywhere, so a political guy should keep his distance."

Wu still isn't sure whether Hu showed up out of politeness or because he was genuinely interested in the writers' thoughts.

Most people here probably could not identity Hu on the street. He made his first speech to the nation in May 1999, during demonstrations against the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

Convinced the airstrike was deliberate, more than 10,000 Chinese laid siege to the U.S. Embassy here. A day after the bombing, Hu appeared on television and played the protests both ways, supporting the demonstrators while urging restraint.

"Comrades, friends," Hu began, employing Communist-era lingo that no one under 40 uses here, "the Chinese government firmly supports and protects ... all legal protest activities."

But, Hu cautioned, "we must prevent overreaction and ensure social stability by guarding against some people making use of the opportunities to disrupt the normal public order."

Hu heads what is known as China's fourth generation of leaders.

The first generation was led by Mao Tse-tung, the communist revolutionary who founded the People's Republic of China in 1949. The second was headed by Deng Xiaoping, who pushed through market reforms that sparked China's high growth rates.

After Deng, the nature of Chinese politics shifted away from personality-based, strong-man rule toward a more consensus-oriented approach. Jiang, a rather colorless, Soviet-trained technocrat, has led the third generation as first among equals, continuing Deng's economic policies while resisting political reform.

Despite his plans to retire as party leader and president, Jiang is expected to try to retain control of the powerful Central Military Commission so he can wield influence behind the scenes as Deng did.

People who have met Hu describe him as confident and knowledgeable. Unlike Jiang, who reportedly read from note cards when he first met President Clinton in 1993, Hu does not rely on notes or personal aides in meetings.

Hu was born in Shanghai. His father was a businessman and his mother died when he was young, according to China's state-run Viewpoint magazine. He graduated from Qinghua in 1965 with a degree in hydraulic engineering and stayed on to teach. Three years later, he joined millions of other young people heading to China's impoverished countryside to participate in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mao's disastrous plan to revitalize communism and turn the country's social hierarchy upside down.

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