- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2002

It was surely inevitable. Once the Chinese presented a new leader named "Hu," we didn't have a chance. So far, I have read no fewer than five headlines smartly asking, "Who's Hu?" And the word games have only begun.
But I would like to suggest, as President Bush traveled to Beijing last week in a visit that worked out to be only semi-historic, that those clever headline-writers are asking the wrong question. The more revealing one for this week would be, "Why Hu?"
We do know some things about the young leader, Hu Jintao, who is expected to be tapped as Chinese communism's fourth-generation leader and president of China at the 16th party congress later this year. We know that he is a mere "kid" in Chi-Com genealogy, only 59 years old. He makes a nice, respectable, almost bourgeois appearance, with his neat physique and head of gleaming black hair.
No peasant or footsore revolutionary from the caves of Yenan, the man whom George W. Bush met last week was born in Shanghai to a reasonably prosperous tea merchant's family. Like the Bushes, he attended all the right schools, having studied engineering at Tsinghua University and headed the Communist Party school in the Fragrant Hills exurbs of Beijing.
Up there, in the little apparatchik heaven that still hides the real grit and impoverishment of so much of China, Mr. Hu deserves credit for opening minds to other thinking in the world. He even brought scholars like Harvard's respected Asia expert Ezra Vogel there to lecture. Students of his sketchy bio say that, like China's first-generation leader, Chairman Mao Tse-tung, Mr. Hu likes ballroom dancing (except, of course, that Mao forbade it for everybody else while he danced his heart out with teen-aged virgins in the privacy of his home).
Ah, but as we know too well, there is always a little box within a box when it comes to China. Between his youth and his recent years at the party school, Hu Jintao was party leader of restive Tibet. At first, he tried to work with the desperate and angry Tibetans, who object to their country being egregiously taken over by the Chinese but he ended up leading one of the most brutal crackdowns in recent Chinese history there.
In the end, when people talk about him, they "on-the-one-hand" and then "on-the-other-hand." They ho and hum, as if in a world of "well, but … ." Finally they tend to say that, well, the man is just "not very original."
No, scratch that he's not original at all. And why should that surprise us?
"They wanted a technocrat," James Lilley, the respected former American ambassador to China, remarked to me before President Bush's trip, "but a technocrat who can also be a tough guy. This is China's really 'new man.' It's the new technocrat, the man who has competence, loyalty, reliability, caution and toughness. He is not going to push for anything like freedom of the press. He's a man who wants to see the party continue. He wants to open China to the world, but still keep control."
Mao Tse-tung came out of the caves of Yenan and took over China in 1947. He was the Great Helmsman whose crazy, utopian leaps forward and Cultural Revolution killed tens of millions of the Chinese people in the name of change. The diminutive, smart and determined Deng Xiao-ping took over in the '80s, a man who wanted to modernize China and free people to the extent the party could allow. The dapper Jiang Zemin ruled from Mr. Deng until now the "Age of Hu"? as the original colorless bureaucrat whose main job was to oversee economic progress.
The missing "whys" of Mr. Hu, then, are not too difficult to ascertain: He has been tapped to oversee the next stage of Chinese development, which will be plagued by the need to modernize further (and the fear of change within), by social dissension across the country (and continued environmental devastation), by the need for a leader who looks modern but can behave in the old Chi-Com style when the situation calls for it.
There are many good signs of change. The Taiwan issue is dwindling in attention, at least for now, largely because the mainland is simply buying out Taiwan's commercial and industrial sectors. Hu Jintao has come out for bringing the rich in China into the Communist Party, a truly revolutionary act. Beijing has sided, at least mostly, with the United States against terrorism, and (the most dramatic event of all) an FBI office is being allowed to open in Beijing.
But the China of historical communism remains there, as well, with its systemic corruption, with its refusal to deal with its hopeless banking system, and with its interpretation of the war against terrorism which is that it is really their own war against China's Muslim separatists in Chinese Central Asia.
Still, what President Bush will find on this trip is that China has implicitly opted for the West, and especially for America, in place of its old identification with the Third World. It now considers itself an "emerging power."
With this identity change has come a change in behavior: The screaming victim's cries of China are not to be found on this trip. And the relationship is now called something realistic a "constructive, cooperative relationship," which comes in place of the old pained antagonism and the Clinton years' unreal "strategic partnership" as well.
This visit marks the 30th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's historic breakthrough meeting in Beijing with Chinese leader Zhou Enlai in 1972. En route home, the American leader said, "That was the week that changed the world." The meeting this week, three decades later, won't change the world; but it does confirm, in its own way, how much the world is changing.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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