- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2005

BEIJING — When Hu Jintao rose to the top party and state positions two years ago, many observers and intellectuals hoped this new leader would turn out to be China’s Mikhail Gorbachev, paving the way for dramatic political reforms as the Soviet leader did in the late 1980s.

Relatively young for a Chinese president, Mr. Hu represented a new generation of politicians and seemed determined to distinguish himself from his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

He began his term by championing the poor and emphasizing sustainable development over no-holds-barred economic reforms. In his first year, he fired officials who covered up the spread of the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus and allowed an unprecedented disclosure of a naval submarine accident.

But lately, Mr. Hu, now 62, has proved to be a disappointment to those who hoped for change. It seems he is a Marxist and not a reformer.

He has begun a political campaign that sounds like a throwback to the early days of the Communist Party. It calls on party members to maintain their “advanced nature” so as to “consolidate the governing status” of the party. He has initiated a 10-year project to perfect Marxism’s “guiding status” in China and sent specialists to Russia and North Korea to study their systems, said the People’s Daily, the party’s newspaper.

“The advanced nature is the life and strength of the Communist Party,” Mr. Hu said at a party meeting, according to a front-page article this month in the People’s Daily. “Construction of the advanced nature of the party is a fundamental task of a Marxist party.”

The language is gobbledygook, even for those who have grown up here, but the intent is clear.

“He’s certainly more determined in sticking to his communist doctrines,” said Liu Junning, an independent scholar in Beijing.

It’s not just rhetoric. In the past year, China has been cracking down on critics of the government, including activists, intellectuals and certain information outlets. Several prominent writers have been detained, professors have been banned from teaching and editors have been arrested.

Authorities also have clamped down on use of the Internet, which is growing fast in China, as a forum for free thought. Hundreds of Internet cafes have been shut down, chat rooms have been censored, Internet essayists have been detained and the public has been invited to report suspicious activity on the Internet.

Last month, the People’s Daily published a sternly worded commentary with language that was reminiscent of China’s paranoia in the 1960s. It warned against “foreign hostile forces with ulterior motives … who want to see the disintegration of China” putting dangerous material on the Internet. It said the Internet should be monitored using “Marxist principles.”

In a modern China where young Chinese mix easily with foreigners at bars and nightclubs, urbanites vacation abroad and consumerism far outweighs communism as a ruling ideology, why is the party talking about Marxism?

“It will certainly help consolidate his political power,” said Mr. Liu, a former professor of political science who was expelled from the government-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences five years ago for his liberal views.

Mr. Hu was officially named secretary-general of the Communist Party in November 2002 and president five months later. Mr. Jiang stepped down as chief of the military in September, making Mr. Hu the undisputed head of all three branches of power — the party, the state and the military. Yet many of Mr. Jiang’s allies are still in office.

Mr. Hu “is basically a cautious guy,” said David Zweig, a China scholar at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “You can’t be the leader of the Communist Party of China and not be cautious. I see [the latest campaign] as a consolidation of power and … also a response to the high degree of social instability.”

All of this comes at a sensitive moment for the Communist Party. This month, China saw the passing of Zhao Ziyang, the former head of the Communist Party who was ousted in 1989 for opposing the use of force against pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square.

The government’s suppression of the news of Mr. Zhao’s death betrays its own deep insecurities. Although many young people barely know about Mr. Zhao, older generations remember him for his liberalism.

For Mr. Hu, Mr. Zhao represents something different: the consequences of being too reform-minded. After Mr. Zhao was ousted, he remained a virtual political prisoner until his death, confined to his courtyard home in central Beijing and essentially turned into a nonperson.

“What’s the lesson of Zhao Ziyang? If you want to stay the secretary-general of the Communist Party, don’t be too liberal,” said Mr. Zweig, the China scholar in Hong Kong. “Jiang Zemin wasn’t liberal. He survived a long time — a guy nobody thought would survive.”

The “advanced nature” campaign also is meant to combat corruption, one of the top complaints of the Chinese people, by educating party members and raising their moral awareness. The nightly news is full of images of low-level cadres holding study sessions and reading party newspapers and documents.

Any real attempt to rein in corruption would require structural reforms that, from the leadership’s point of view, are far too risky. Given the examples of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where events quickly snowballed out of control, China is careful not to allow even the first step toward a more open government.

“There’s no limit to this kind of reform,” said Mr. Liu, the expelled political science professor. “No one knows what will happen. There’s no end to it. People will want everything.”

The country has seen an alarming level of social unrest in the past year. As it has transformed itself from one of the most egalitarian societies in the world to one of the most unequal, it has failed to provide any safety nets for those left behind. Clashes among social groups, some of them violent, are increasing in number and scale. Some are ignited by the smallest of incidents.

Observers are not sure whether Mr. Hu’s Marxist campaign represents his true ideology or is merely a tactical move. Mr. Liu, for one, doesn’t think he is a reformer.

“I think Hu dislikes those bourgeois liberalization ideas — constitutional government, private property, privatization, individual freedom, limited representative democracy,” Mr. Liu said. “They are all just too bourgeois.”

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