- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2002

It was classic Hu Jintao making his point while preserving his options.In 1999, Chinese Prime Minister Jiang Zemin received a letter from a student at Beijing University accusing one of the school's lecturers of promoting "bourgeois liberalism," a transgression that had provoked divisive ideological fights and destroyed several careers in the mid-1980s. Mr. Jiang ordered Mr. Hu, whose collection of top Communist Party and government posts includes the party's top office for ideological correctness, to handle the matter.
Mr. Hu's Solomonic solution: He ordered party propagandists to produce essays criticizing bourgeois liberalism but put a sharp limit on the number produced and decreed they would only be published by one national newspaper.
It was, noted a well-connected Chinese political analyst who writes under the pen name Yao Jin, one more case in a long career in which Mr. Hu took on thankless jobs and managed to "patch up the quarrel in a way acceptable to both the conservative and reformist wings of the party."
Vice President Hu Jintao, the man in line to become leader of the world's most populous country for perhaps the next decade, faces one of his biggest tests this week as he travels to Washington for the first time to meet with President Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney.
The meetings come at yet another bumpy time in relations between Washington and Beijing, with Taiwan, human rights and China's record on weapons proliferation topping a long list of irritants between the two countries.
Mr. Hu arrived in Honolulu yesterday, his first-ever visit to the United States and the first stop on a four-city tour that will take him to San Francisco, New York (where he will visit the site of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center) and to Washington.
"My current visit is aimed at implementing the consensus reached at the talks between President Jiang Zemin and President Bush in Beijing, strengthening the high-level contact between China and the United States, enhancing mutual understanding and pushing forward the Sino-U.S. constructive and cooperative relationship," Mr. Hu said in a statement in Honolulu.
"May the friendship between the Chinese and American people last forever," he said.
Mr. Hu, who is set to be confirmed as Communist Party chief this fall and to take over as prime minister in March, comes to Washington at the invitation of Mr. Cheney. He will meet Mr. Bush and also attend a working dinner with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
His only public appearance here is a dinner hosted by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, where he is expected to give an address on Sino-U.S. ties.
Few expect any substantive breakthroughs during Mr. Hu's visit, but U.S. officials and private China-watchers are hungry for more clues to the enigmatic 59-year-old Mr. Hu, who despite a cautious and colorless public style has fashioned an unprecedentedly swift climb through the Chinese political echelon.
He made it to the top despite not being the first choice of his nominal boss, Mr. Jiang, who favored a rival candidate and could prove a behind-the-scenes headache for Mr. Hu even after relinquishing his major posts by next year.
Mr. Hu is "Jiang's successor, not his choice," observed Joseph Fewsmith, an expert on Chinese politics at Boston University's Department of International Relations.

'Who's Hu' in China
The fact that Mr. Hu, a hydraulic engineer by training, has thrived in the treacherous upper rungs of the Chinese Communist Party has inspired a virtual cottage industry of "Who's Hu?" speculation among China watchers on the sources of his influence and longevity.
With China facing major foreign-policy challenges as well as massive economic and social dislocation as it joins the World Trade Organization (WTO), the talents and political leanings of Mr. Hu and other members of the rising "fourth generation" of Chinese Communist leaders will shape the country for years to come.
Said John Tkacik, a onetime Foreign Service officer in China and now a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, "No Chinese Communist since the early days of the party has risen so far, so fast, and stayed there despite the lack of a strong power base."
Suisheng Zhao, executive director of the University of Denver's Center for U.S.-China Cooperation and editor of the Journal of Contemporary China, said Mr. Hu faces a "very delicate task" in Washington, particularly with Mr. Jiang planning his own valedictory trip here in the fall.
Mr. Hu made no missteps but left few strong impressions during a four-nation tour of Western Europe last fall. The Washington trip is designed to build up his stature as a statesman back home while not upstaging the man who remains his boss.
"They will be watching very carefully back home," Mr. Zhao said. "It's already a sensitive time because of the Taiwan issue, and this trip for Hu can't be a failure but it also can't be too successful."
Yao Jin, the pseudonymous Chinese analyst, said Mr. Hu's career recalled the old Chinese proverb: "The bird that sticks its head out gets shot."
"In all his public remarks, Hu has cautiously toed the party line, and no outsiders know where he really stands on economic and political reform and many other critical issues that confront China today," Yao Jin wrote. "His reputation as a political enigma reflects not only a cautious personality but also the pressures on him not to make mistakes and not to upstage Jiang."
The question marks hanging over Mr. Hu are all the more remarkable because he has complied a long track record, linked himself to numerous mentors, and been involved in many of the most contentious political issues of the past two decades.

New political figure
He has been the target of international scrutiny at least since 1988 for his role in the violent crackdown on demonstrators while serving as party secretary for Tibet.
Mr. Hu has been his generation's leading political figure at least since 1992, when no less a figure that General Secretary Deng Xiaoping tapped the largely unknown Mr. Hu to organize the critical 14th Communist Party Congress, the gathering that confirmed Mr. Jiang's own rise to power.
By October 1992, Mr. Jiang was securely in charge, and Mr. Hu had become the youngest member of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, bypassing dozens of more senior and more prominent party officials.
Boston University's Mr. Fewsmith noted that Mr. Hu has managed to hold on to what has historically been one of the world's most notorious dead-end jobs: No. 2 in the Chinese hierarchy.
If Mr. Hu can obtain and hold on to power over the next five-year term, he will have managed a feat that eluded previous Communist Party heirs apparent in a line from Liu Shaoqi purged during Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s to Zhao Ziyang, who lost his post for failing to back the bloody crackdown on democracy activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The problem, China watchers say, is that Mr. Hu's record can be used to support virtually any interpretation, from the unimaginative party functionary (his nickname among Beijing liberalizers is "the grandson," slang for a sycophantic yes-man) to hard-line reactionary to closet anti-corruption reformer.
The benign Mr. Hu is a pragmatic technocrat with little patience for tedious fights over orthodoxy. Among China's urban-oriented leadership, he has an unmatched familiarity with the country's struggling rural poor from his early assignments as an engineer and party official in Gansu and Guizhou, two of the country's most impoverished and desolate regions.

The right credentials
He burnished his reformist credentials through his close identification with the Communist Party's Central Party School, which has become an unlikely center of political innovation in recent years, introducing up-and-coming party cadres to Western management concepts and liberalizing political and economic trends.
He has managed to impress a series of mentors across the Chinese political spectrum, from the conservative Song Ping, his first boss in Gansu, to the liberal Hu Yaobang, himself a onetime heir apparent before being swept aside in 1987.
Mr. Hu is a master at putting out internal fires in the hierarchy, and made sure to seat himself at the speaker's table in January, when Deputy Prime Minister Qian Qichen announced a softening on China's policy on contacts with members of Taiwan's governing party.
But there is also plenty of ammunition in Mr. Hu's record for pessimists.
It was Mr. Hu, for example, who was selected by party leaders to read a scathing condemnation of the United States and NATO on national television after an alliance bomb destroyed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the 1999 war in Kosovo.
While Mr. Hu held a cordial get-acquainted meeting during President Bush's visit to Beijing in February, his occasional comments on U.S. policies over the past decade "are riddled with suspicion, if not downright paranoia," noted Heritage's Mr. Tkacik.
In a 1994 speech, Mr. Hu said the United States was pursuing a "global hegemonist strategy," with China as its main rival.
"Interfering in China, subverting China and strangling China's development are strategic principles pursued by the United States," he said.
He has only a thin background in economics, at a time when bloated state enterprises, labor unrest, and the accession of China to the WTO loom as the government's biggest domestic challenges of the coming decade.
Most worrying, Mr. Hu has backed ruthless measures in the past to control dissent. While serving as provincial party leader in Tibet in 1989, Mr. Hu was one of the first regional officials to congratulate the central leadership in Beijing for its suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Crackdown in Tibet
Mr. Hu's rocky tenure in Tibet encapsulates many of the contradictions Western diplomats and analysts see in him.
"There is no doubt that during his time in Lhasa we saw some of the most draconian steps taken against the people of Tibet," said John Ackerly, president of the International Campaign for Tibet. "There was a general crackdown, shooting of unarmed protesters and horrifying accounts of torture of political prisoners."
Mr. Hu was confronted with a difficult situation from the start: Rioting rocked Lhasa, the capital city, the day after his appointment was announced on Dec. 9, 1988.
Mr. Hu made some early gestures to Tibetan Buddhist leaders, but local unrest continued, fueled by the suspicious death of in January 1989 of the revered religious leader the Panchen Lama.
With reports that leadership in Beijing is divided, Mr. Hu in March imposed martial law on the province and ordered a military crackdown that resulted in the deaths of from 40 to 130 Tibetan protesters.
It is reported that Mr. Hu's decisiveness reportedly won him the approval of Deng Xiaoping, and, with a suspiciously convenient case of altitude sickness, the 47-year-old Mr. Hu was soon on his way to Beijing to begin a rapid climb up the political hierarchy.
Debates continue on whether Mr. Hu acted in Tibet of his own accord or was simply carrying out the orders of his party superiors. Tibetan activists like Mr. Ackerly say they are not ready to write Mr. Hu off.
While Mr. Hu routinely mouths the central government line condemning the "separatist Dalai [Lama] clique," he has avoided the bitter attacks other Chinese leaders have trained on Tibetan leaders.
"We don't expect Tibet to be one of the first things he would want to tackle as premier, and certainly he took a very hard-line stance," Mr. Ackerly said.

Bush and Lhasa
"But on the other hand, he's the first Chinese leader in a long time with first-hand experience with Tibet and minority issues in the poorer provinces," he said. "If he wants to make a break with the past, he has the credibility to do it."
T. Kumar, advocacy director for Asian affairs at Amnesty International, said it was imperative for Bush administration officials to stress issues such as Tibet, the rule of law and human rights at this week's meeting with Mr. Hu.
"Both sides are trying to make an impression," said Mr. Kumar. "The bottom line is that this guy can make a major change in China's human rights record if he wants to, and the U.S. government should let him know how important the question will be in the relationship."
The Bush administration, according to government sources, is apparently sending a signal of its own. Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for global affairs and the State Department's lead official on Tibet, is expected to be seated next to Mr. Hu at the working dinner this week.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide