Who's Hu? Assessing China's Heir Apparent, Hu Jintao

April 19, 2002

 A Biographical Look at Vice President Hu Jintao

John Tkacik

Barring a cosmic political gaffe between now and October, Vice President Hu Jintao is set to succeed Jiang Zemin as China's new leader at the Chinese Communist Party's Sixteenth Party Congress this fall. With Vice President Hu planning a visit to the United States at the end of April at the invitation of Vice President Cheney, much media attention will be focused on him as a mystery man, a mystery that seems to arise from Mr. Hu's aversion--thus far--to dealing with Americans. His short meetings with President Bush in Beijing in February reflect his caution on foreign affairs and his uncertainty over the future of United States-China relations. Nonetheless, Hu Jinto is a consummate politician in the Chinese Communist tradition who appears to represent the technocratic "reformist" wing of the party. For nine years, he has been the director of the Communist Party School in Beijing, the premier training academy for virtually all of China's upper-tier national-level cadres and the arbiter of the most basic debates over communist ideology.

At almost 60, Hu is still one of the youngest leaders Communist China has ever had, and he likely has quite a few more years at the top of China's hierarchy.

Throughout his career, Hu Jintao has been viewed by party elders as intelligent, dynamic, articulate, genial, loyal, and above all, politically correct. Hu is a trained engineer and a savvy party politician with leadership experience both in the provinces as well as in Beijing.

One gap in Hu's portfolio should concern his future American counterparts. For a man destined to be China's supreme leader, he has rarely dealt with U.S. issues. In the past, he has complained of Cold War "hegemony" and has voiced suspicion of American power. In 1994 a Hong Kong journal reported that Hu told a secret party meeting that "strangling China's development" was "a strategic principle pursued by the United States." And one pseudonymous Chinese scholar reports that after the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in spring 1999, Hu told a closed-door conference of party and government workers that "the hostile forces in the United States will never give up its attempt to subjugate China."

So, the morning after the Belgrade bombing on May 9, 1999, it was unexpected that the Politburo chose Hu Jintao to give the leadership's only television address to the nation. Hu was said to appear ill at ease in the role as he read from a prepared text. The "U.S.-led NATO," he declared, "brazenly attacked our embassy," killing personnel and destroying the building. It was, he said, a "criminal act," a "barbaric act." Still, throughout the speech, he insisted on ascribing the blame to the "U.S.-led NATO," not the U.S. alone (though as the smoke was clearing from ground zero in Belgrade, Hu may not have known that U.S. planes had indeed struck the embassy). In the short statement, Hu noted that "students and people" had demonstrated at U.S. diplomatic offices in China reflecting the Chinese people's "great indignation." But Hu was cautious. While the Chinese government firmly supported all legal protests, he urged the people to "take into consideration of the country's fundamental interests" and "guard against any overreactions."

Hu's most noteworthy accomplishment prior to his elevation into the lofty heights of leadership in 1992 was his suppression of the March 1989 demonstrations in Lhasa, Tibet. But the story of Hu's appointment as party chief in Tibet suggests he was chosen because of his reputation as a reformist, not for his decisiveness in putting down revolts.

While Americans would be justified in viewing Hu's ascendance with some unease, the totality of his career indicates that Hu Jintao is at least from the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) reformist wing. He is a technocrat and a moderate, and though he is China's chief propagandist, he has little patience for ideological orthodoxy or hard-line confrontation.

Up Through the Ranks

Hu Jintao was born in Shanghai in December 1942 into an educated family of tea merchants, the oldest of three children. The family likely moved out of the city as the Japanese occupation in Shanghai tightened. Young Hu grew up in the prosperous and pretty Taizhou county in Jiangsu Province, but his family claims Jixi, Anhui as the ancestral home.1 He could well be related to another prominent son of Jixi--Hu Shi, a poet and scholar of the early twentieth century who was Chiang Kai-shek's ambassador to Washington.

If there is a relationship, though, it was probably distant because Hu Shi was named president of Taiwan's Academia Sinica the year before Hu Jintao was admitted to Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua (Qinghua) University. Young Jintao would hardly have been admitted to Tsinghua in the first year of the "Anti-Rightist Campaign" if he had been closely related to a prominent figure in the Kuomintang. In any case, the Hus of Jixi were reputed to be a well-educated clan and there is no doubt that young Jintao fit the mold.

In 1959 he entered Tsinghua University to major in riverine hydropower generation in the university's hydraulic engineering department, where he was the youngest student in his class. A Taiwan biography of Hu reports that he earned virtually straight As in his coursework. A handsome and personable young man, Hu was identified by the school party organization as having leadership potential and sympathy with communist ideology; by his sophomore year, he had been designated a "prospective party member."2 Upon graduation, he remained at the university as a political assistant. In fact, Hu caught the attention of Tsinghua University president Jiang Nanxiang, a man with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee (CCP/CC) and to local Beijing leaders. Jiang was known for giving Tsinghua students strong recommendations for central cadre jobs, a habit that resulted in a vibrant "Tsinghua Mafia" within the Communist Party leadership at all levels.3

In April 1964, with Jiang's nod, Hu Jintao was accepted as a party probationer. Hu was appointed as a researcher at Tsinghua University and political instructor for the school's party organization. In 1965 he became a full party member. At Tsinghua University, Hu met an attractive young woman named Liu Yongqing, whom he married after a long courtship.4

The "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" hit Beijing full force in the fall of 1966 while Hu Jintao was still at Tsinghua. Through 1967 and 1968, the city was wracked by ceaseless civil war between tens of thousands of Beijing college students of the "Heaven Faction" (led by the college of aeronautics) and the "Earth Faction" (from the geology institute) which engulfed all Beijing's universities. Hu apparently was caught up in the "struggle" campaigns of the time and is said to be "one of the few student party members to be criticized and denounced," after which he "went scot-free."5 By August 1968, the People's Liberation Army had reestablished a semblance of order in the city by deporting virtually all students to the countryside, and Hu Jintao was no exception

Exile in the Desert

Hu did not go so scot-free that he avoided being "sent down to the countryside" in 1968 to do manual labor in a housing construction team in the poor, remote desert province of Gansu. One source says that Hu had asked to be sent to work on "Third Line" construction projects in the countryside and that he chose the Gansu Liujiaxia Power Station project because it suited his academic training.6

In 1969, after a year of hod-carrying in Gansu, Hu was assigned to "813 Branch of the Number Four Engineering Bureau" to work on a local project managed by the central government's Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power. There, he rose through the ranks as technician and office secretary to become the local bureau's deputy party secretary. This, evidently, was his first taste of real party work, and he did it well.

In 1974 he was transferred from the desolate countryside to the Gansu Provincial Construction Commission in the less grim provincial capital of Lanzhou, where he was assigned as a secretary (probably in the Commission's Revolutionary Committee) and deputy chief of the Commission's Project Design Management Division. Hu, an engineer trained at China's top school, by all accounts, took his job seriously and was regarded as both a gifted design engineer and an effective manager.

Old School Tie from Tsinghua University

During Hu's time at the Construction Commission from 1975 to 1980, he worked closely with Song Ping, chairman of the Gansu Provincial Revolutionary Commission and later provincial Party secretary. Song Ping was a veteran of the Central Party School in Yanan and Xinhua Daily News (Zhou Enlai's pet project in Chiang Kai-shek's wartime capital of Chungking). Song, therefore, was very well-connected in Beijing, especially with the Zhou Enlai faction and with Deng Xiaoping. Song was also a 1937 Tsinghua graduate, and in the 1970s he no doubt saw great promise in his young fellow alumnus Hu Jintao. By 1980, Song had promoted Hu to be deputy director, later director of the Gansu Provincial Construction Commission.7

One source says Song once praised the young man as a "walking map of Gansu." Hu had visited every part of the province during his 12 years there and reputedly knew the counties and their problems by heart. In 1980, Song recommended Hu for the Central Party School's "middle-and-young cadre training class" in Beijing, and while he was still in Beijing, Song Ping named him a deputy secretary of the Gansu Provincial Communist Youth League (CYL). Clearly, Hu Jintao was going to have a solid party career--in Gansu Province at least.8 But young Hu Jintao's horizons would soon be expanded beyond Gansu. At the Central Party School in Beijing, the Tsinghua ties proved their value once more. The Central Party School vice president was Jiang Nanxiang, former Tsinghua University president, and Jiang took his former student under his wing, grooming him for central party work in the capital.9

Beijing and the Communist Youth League

As luck would have it, Song Ping was promoted out of Gansu in 1981 and sent to Beijing to be vice chairman (later chairman) of the Central Planning Commission, where he immediately began pulling strings for young Jintao.

Song was quite a string-puller because in 1982, at the age of 39, Hu was selected as an alternate member to the 12th CCP Central Committee. Not only was he the youngest member of the CC, he was one of the few bearing the lowly rank of provincial commission head. It was unsurprising, then, that later in the year Hu was promoted to Secretary of the Gansu Provincial Committee of the CYL. And it was even less surprising that within months Hu had been transferred to Beijing where he joined the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the CYL and became president of the All-China Youth Federation.

By November 1984, Hu was head of the CYL Secretariat, the top post of China's largest youth organization. (His wife, by the way, apparently worked at the CYL National Committee's "Chinese Youth Travel Agency" when Hu was transferred to Beijing in 1982, but was later transferred to the Beijing Municipal Construction Commission to avoid suspicions of nepotism.10 )
The Communist Youth League proved to be a snakepit of intrigue, according to one account. In 1982, one report says, Hu authorized CYL newspapers to rebut a hard-line political campaign that attacked Western ideas as "spiritual pollution." In the process, Hu managed to alienate two members of the "Princeling Party" (the son of the late People's Liberation Army Marshal Chen Yi, Chen Haosu, and the son of General He Changgong, He Jiawei) who "complained incessantly" to their elders, who then passed these comments on to Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang--a former CYL head himself.11

The elder Hu, however, had taken a shine to young Jintao and suggested that he get out of town for a while. Song Ping, now a force in the Party Center's personnel department, agreed. Hu Jintao, they felt, needed "provincial" experience if he was expected to move into the top levels of politics. Upon learning of Hu's troubles in the CYL, according to one source, Party Organization Department head Qiao Shi advised Hu to "go find a safe haven that is also a training base."12

Banishment to Guizhou

So, in July 1985, General Secretary Hu Yaobang ordered Hu Jintao named Provincial Party Committee secretary in dirt-poor Guizhou.
Doing what comes naturally, Hu proceeded to make inspection tours of each the province's 86 counties, taking copious notes on their problems, complaints and noting their respective successes. His first month in Guizhou was spent on an eleven-day tour of "remote districts along Guizhou's borders with Yunnan, Sichuan and Guangxi, visiting mountain villages, factories and mines in twelve counties."13 At one point, Hu focused his attentions on the shortcomings of the state-owned Luolong tea plantations in Daozheng and the successes of the semi-private tea plantation in the same county. Perhaps Hu's interest was piqued by his family's pre-revolutionary tea business in Shanghai. At any rate, Hu identified the major problem with the state-owned farm as the lack of a "contract system or leased management."14

He also audited at Guizhou University, where he reportedly attended classes regularly. Concerned by the lack of facilities in Guizhou's schools, he ordered a massive rebuilding program and ordered tuition waivers for students who could not afford fees. Hu Jintao seemed genuinely concerned for the welfare of his Guizhou constituency, and by all accounts, the province was very happy to have him. By the end of 1987, Guizhou's economic output was more than double, and per capita incomes were almost triple the levels of mid 1985. Hu had established himself as an effective reformist leader in a poverty-stricken province.15

But reformism had its costs. In mid-1987, after the demotion of Hu Yaobang and the ascendancy of the hardliners in Beijing, a large working group was secretly sent to Guizhou to investigate Hu Jintao's performance, no doubt bent on finding an excuse to quietly remove him. Hu, however, survived the inspection unscathed.16

Tibet and Tiananmen

Although Hu was reappointed as Guizhou party chief in August 1988, Hu's mentor in Beijing, Song Ping, let him know that the party was looking for a new man for the top party spot in Tibet. It would be a tough job, but there were already a dozen candidates vying for it. Song counseled Hu to throw his hat in the ring as well. Hu did, and on December 9, 1988, Hu Jintao was officially appointed Party Secretary in the Tibet Autonomous Region.17

The next day, International Human Rights Day, large demonstrations in Lhasa turned violent, and local police shot into the crowd. Hu Jintao had not even arrived to take up his new duties and the situation was already uglier than he could have expected. So it must have been with some trepidation that Hu Jintao got off the plane at Lhasa airport on January 12.18 Before leaving Beijing, the Communist Party's new General Secretary Zhao Ziyang had urged him to avoid frictions with the locals. Hu was, after all, the first party chief without a military background ever assigned to Tibet, a sign that Beijing was hopeful the young reformist could smooth over the tensions that soldiers had only exacerbated.19
Two weeks into his duties, on January 28, Tibet Party Secretary Hu Jintao received news that the revered Panchen Lama had died. Immediately, speculation began on whether Beijing would cooperate with the exiled Dalai Lama to choose a successor. Once again, unrest in Lhasa rose to a low boil. By February 7, large crowds began parading through the city carrying the Tibetan exile flag. The police looked on. On February 13, more processions wound though Lhasa's streets. Foreign wire services noted approvingly that Hu Jintao was a moderate and seemed willing to tolerate the displays. Three times, Hu Jintao called Beijing and spoke directly to General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, himself already in a tenuous political position. Zhao "asked him to overcome the hard with the soft."20 The demonstrations continued.

But the situation was slipping into chaos, Hu feared. On February 20, Hu ordered 1,700 armed police to parade in formation through Lhasa in a show of force to discourage further unrest. Hu Jintao anticipated massive demonstrations on the 30th anniversary of the 1959 Chinese occupation of Tibet on March 10. On March 5, a demonstration in Lhasa turned into a riot and police opened fire on civilians, killing ten. One policeman died. At least 40 Tibetans were killed by police in bloody rioting in the days that followed.

From the beginning of the crisis, Hu had coordinated with the Chengdu Military Region command to move as many as seventeen divisions, or about 170,000 men, into Tibet.21 Premier Li Peng declared martial law in Tibet on March 7; by March 8, PLA units had locked down the city, and all foreigners were ordered out of the region. By March 10, the situation in Lhasa was reported normal, but Hu was not able to attend the National People's Congress session in Beijing on March 14, citing continuing tensions on the Tibetan Plateau. The large PLA presence in Tibet, however, kept the region quiet through the rest of that spring and summer, including through June's Tiananmen Square tragedy.22

Hu's political instincts were flawless. Only 47 years old, Hu Jintao had drawn the attention of no less than Deng Xiaoping, who was deeply impressed that the young man had taken it on himself to disregard the Party General Secretary's instructions and begin dealing directly with the military region command. Deng ordered Hu penciled in for a top party job in Beijing at the next Party Congress slated for 1992.

Hu proved he was politically decisive as well. He was one of the first three provincial leaders to announce support for the Party Center immediately after the Tiananmen Square incident (Shanghai was first; other provinces took their time).23

While Hu Jintao's role in suppressing the 1989 Tibetan demonstrations has left a bad taste in the mouths of the overseas Tibetan community, Hu appears to have maintained a keen interest in Tibetan affairs to this day.24 Moreover, Tibetan exile groups report that Tibetan ethnic leaders in Qinghai province believe that Hu's ascendancy in Beijing will be good news for Tibetans. Hu, after all, is the only central leader who has any understanding of Tibet's problems and they feel he is sincere in seeking ways to remedy them.25

Altitude Sickness Sends Hu Back to Beijing

Clearly, Tibet was the boondocks and the real action was in Beijing, so Hu wasted no time waiting around in isolated Lhasa. On September 5, 1989, Hu Jintao succumbed to "fatigue" while inspecting army units in Tibet. He apparently used his illness to arrange several medical visits back to Beijing, and by mid-June 1990, after 18 months on the 12,000-foot plateau, Hu developed "altitude sickness" and returned permanently to Beijing to recuperate. Aside from appearing at several conferences in the Tibetan region, Hu had little in the way of constructive accomplishments during his tenure. Nonetheless, Hu retained the title of Secretary of the Party Committee for the Tibetan Autonomous Region for the next two years.

Whether Hu really was susceptible to altitude sickness is debatable.

Acclimatization takes several days, but symptoms of altitude sickness are rarely chronic and usually pass. Moreover, Hu had lived three years in the 4,000-foot high capital of Guizhou. Perhaps sensing some skepticism about Hu's departure from Tibet, a 1993 Central Committee report on Hu Jintao's health was leaked to the Hong Kong press. It indicated that he had "low blood pressure, occasional irregular heart rate; a history of high altitude diseases and pneumonia; and a weak physique." The Central Committee Health Bureau cautioned him against working more than ten hours a day, working at altitude, or taking long-haul flights.26

Organizing the Fourteenth Congress

Feigned or not, the altitude sickness was a godsend to Hu Jintao. Back in Beijing, he served on key party organization boards, pulled rank to take over committees, organize them, write reports, brief party elders, and basically make himself indispensable to Beijing's embattled hierarchy in the wake of Tiananmen. Although Hu remained on the books as Tibet party chief, he spent most of the next two years in Beijing as de facto executive director of the Communist Party's all-powerful Organization Department under mentor Song Ping.

In the spring of 1992, Deng Xiaoping trusted Hu enough to designate him point man to organize preparations for the Fourteenth Communist Party Congress--Jiang Zemin's first Congress as General Secretary. Hu drafted the paperwork for the elevation of Jiang to the presidency, and penciled in several of Jiang's allies for the Politburo while bargaining with Jiang's main rival, Qiao Shi, over which Qiao supporters got jobs. There is speculation that Hu Jintao brokered the famous deal between Jiang Zemin and Deng Xiaoping--Jiang pledged to place "Deng Xiaoping Theory" as the core ideology of the Communist Party, while Deng Xiaoping authorized Jiang to be designated the "Core of the Third Generation of Leaders." Lest anyone be puzzled by just what a "core" of a generation is, the Congress Report noted that "Mao Zedong was the core of the first generation, and Deng Xiaoping was the core of the second."

Hu must have done an outstanding job. By the end of the Fourteenth Congress in October 1992, he had leap-frogged over scores of Politburo members and party heavyweights into the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee. There, he took charge of party personnel and organization affairs replacing Song Ping and became the swing vote at China's apex of power.

As the Politburo member charged with overseeing personnel and propaganda, Hu was tasked with difficult cadre policy problems particularly those touching the perquisites of senior cadres. He tackled vested interests that had soured the public against the bureaucracy and frustrated reforms, and under his guidance, the organization department issued rules banning nepotism and establishing training and performance standards for promotions. Hu apparently had made a name for himself as an idea-man as well as a leader.

Hu's Influence on the Central Party School

While Hu's protégés are surprisingly invisible, this is not to say he doesn't have them. Hong Kong's preeminent China-watcher Willy Wo-lap Lam says "among Fourth Generation leaders . . . Hu has the best power network in the country." In 1992, he was formally put in charge of the party's personnel and organization departments, and in March 1993, he was appointed president of the Central Party School, which put him in contact with virtually every rising young party leader from virtually every province, every ministry of the central government, and every cell of the Communist Party.

Under Hu Jintao, the Central Party School began to teach finance, Western economics, and management, as well as Marxist theory. The school is now wrestling with the core problem of totalitarianism: how to reconcile economic liberalization, foreign investment, and increasing privatization with the demands of state control. Can a giant socialist bureaucracy actually guide a dynamic economy and diverse society? Under Hu's leadership, the Party School initiated programs to bring more responsive government, though not democracy, by building a professional civil service and encouraging greater transparency. The school has visiting foreign lecturers for all subjects and has sent study teams abroad, including one group to Germany to study the theories of the once anathema Edouard Bernstein, author of Evolutionary Socialism which developed a theory of the gradual transformation of capitalism into socialism. In fact, some observers see this new interest in Revisionism as preparing cadres to engage "in a once unthinkable debate: how to prepare the party for a more-democratic future."27

Perhaps a better question would be how to prepare the party for an increasingly dissatisfied populace. Hu Jintao confronted this question head-on with the internal publication of a book compiled by the CCP's Central Organization Department called "A Broad Discussion of Research into Party Construction" (Dangjian Yanjiu Zonghengtan). The book documented widespread public disillusionment with party corruption and the general deterioration of social conditions, and included a broad array of polling data reflecting that 33.3 percent of "intellectuals" believe China "should carry out general elections" and "implement a bicameral, multiparty, tripartite" political system. Nearly a quarter of "intellectuals" did not agree with the traditional communist stance that the party is the "vanguard of the proletariat."28 Yet another Central Organization Department book released to the public in May 2001 (though it quickly "sold out") entitled "China Investigative Report 2000-2001" appears related to internal party studies of political instability which have been done in preparation for the 2002 Sixteenth Party Congress. That book also confirmed widespread public cynicism of the Communist Party, but also warned that violent demonstrations of public unrest were more than doubling each year. Trust between rural cadres and the people had vanished and local officials viewed the populace as "wild animals or a flood" and feared to go into villages alone.29

Although the Central Organization Department chief was Jiang Zemin protégé Zeng Qinghong, who is often rumored to be Hu Jintao's "rival," it is clear that neither of these documents could have been produced without the active support of Hu Jintao himself.30

Clearly, Hu Jintao's influence on the Party School and on the party's organization infrastructure in general has pushed the party more toward responsiveness to social dissatisfaction rather than the outright repression of such dissent favored in the more militant factions of the party.

Interest in Foreign Affairs

Hu's most interesting innovation at the Central Party School was the establishment of a foreign-policy institute and a center of comparative politics. With this, Hu himself became increasingly involved in party-to-party relations with other countries, though resolutely staying away from Americans and most West Europeans. In 1995, he visited Central Asia and Romania, and in 1997 he swung through Portugal, Mexico, Colombia, and Cuba, where he took the opportunity to complain about Helms-Burton sanctions on Havana.

This is not to say he wasn't interested in the United States. On April 1, 1994, Hu Jintao gave a secret speech entitled "Changes in Sino-U.S. Relations" at a Central Committee Secretariat propaganda work conference. In that speech, Hu said:

The whole Party and the whole army should make full preparations and should be more profoundly aware that Sino-U.S. relations will not be in a normal state in the near future, in the next few years, and even for a longer period to come, and further worsening and confrontations may occur. According to the global hegemonist strategy of the United States, its main rival at present is the PRC. Interfering in China, subverting the Chinese Government, and strangling China's development are strategic principles pursued by the United States. While facing hegemonism, power politics and the aggressive anti-China strategy pursued by the United States, we have no room for any choices. We must sternly and explicitly tell the United States and declare to the world also, that the normalization and development of relations between China and the United States can only be made on the basis of the two [sic] joint communiqués signed by the two governments.31

It is hard to explain away Hu Jintao's sentiments as anything less than reflective of a general anti-American paranoia that persists in Beijing's leadership to this day. However, it should be noted that April 1 was just days after the abortive visit of U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Beijing during which Christopher warned Beijing that President Clinton could be forced to revoke China's Most Favored Nation status because China's human rights situation had not improved. In the end, Clinton did not revoke MFN, and China's human rights situation did not improve. Perhaps Hu Jintao felt his dire predictions had not come to pass and decided to forswear further analysis of American issues.

Appointment as Vice President

At the Fifteenth Party Congress in October 1997, Hu quietly rose from seventh to fifth most powerful man in China, and moved outside the party hierarchy for the first time in March 1998 to be State Vice President. Surely, everyone could see that China needed a younger figure to be groomed as a leader, but apparently there was some surprise at Hu's election. In late February 1998, Chinese President Jiang Zemin was obliged to explain to the party Central Committee the reasoning behind the choice.

Jiang pointed out that the Party Center began training Hu as a future party leadership core at the Fourteenth Congress. Since that time, Jiang said, "Hu adopted a clear-cut stand and held that party building should serve economic construction." This clearly was a signal to the party that Hu was numbered among the party's reformists. Jiang noted Hu's creditable performance in Guizhou, and his "resolute measures to quell turmoil" in Tibet.

But lest the party misapprehend that Hu was good at "quelling turmoil," Jiang quickly added that former Premier Li Peng--roundly viewed as the top civilian urging the armed suppression of the democracy movement at Tiananmen in 1989--was named to chair China's National People's Congress because "Li Peng is a leader good at quelling turmoils." Jiang explained that while Hu was good at overcoming the "left" (i.e. orthodox central planning) obstacle, Li Peng was good at overcoming the "right obstacle." Jiang stressed that "by the right obstacle, we mean turmoils." By placing Hu Jintao and Li Peng in apposition, with Hu as the reformist and Li as the hardliner, Jiang left no doubt that Hu stood as a "reformist" in the political spectrum.32

One other early indication of where Vice President Hu Jintao stood in the reform debate came on May 8, 1998, in a speech marking the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of Deng Xiaoping's reform movement. Hu's speech focused on the 1978 publication of an article in Lilun Dongtai (Trends in Theory), which Hu Jintao described as "a restricted publication of the Central Party School." The article, entitled "Practice Is the Sole Criterion of Truth," Hu pointed out, was published at the order of "Comrade Hu Yaobang." It was the only time anyone had noted Hu Yaobang's contribution to the "Seek Truth" debate during the forum, and was viewed as an indication of Hu Jintao's political stance.33

Another incident came in 1999, when a liberal researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was accused of advocating "bourgeois liberalism" in his lectures. Hu--who remained the party's propaganda czar--instructed theoreticians at the Party School to write articles to criticize "bourgeois liberalism," but limited the response to only five essays, all published by one national newspaper only. Mindful of his experience in 1982 at the CYL, Hu was well aware of the dangers of another nationwide campaign to attack "bourgeois liberalism" and sought to defuse the issue.34

And in March 2001, as orthodox ideologue journals such as Seeking Truth ( Zhenlide Zhuiqiu ), presumed to criticize Jiang Zemin's new doctrine of the "Three Represents"--which purported to broaden party membership to capitalists, intellectuals, and artists--as straying from the tenets of Marxism-Leninism, Hu once again entered the fray. Hu ordered the suspension of two leftist magazines for "rectification," and warned the other media not to publish any such articles in the future.35

The Central Military Commission and a New Role in Foreign Policy
In October 1999, Hu Jintao was named Vice Chairman of the Central Military Affairs Commissions (both the party and state commissions), and began taking part in a series of military reforms that other civilians found hard to manage. Jiang Zemin, for example, had issued orders in July 1997 that the military should withdraw from all business activities. By August 1999, little had been done and it fell to Hu to see that the orders were enforced.36

Hu Jintao is playing an increasingly central role in foreign policy. In April-May 1998, Hu visited Japan and Korea, and attended the ASEAN Summit in Hanoi in December, and appeared to be taking part in policies relating to those countries. In July 1999, he attended the second anniversary celebrations of the Hong Kong handover in Hong Kong--but had no overseas travel that year. In July 2000, he visited Burma, Thailand, and Indonesia. In January 2001, he visited Iran, Syria, Jordan, Cyprus, and Uganda.

And in November 2001, he made a formal visit to Russia, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Spain. Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council noted in a January 2002 report that Hu's visit to the five European countries in November 2001 was a diplomatic debut which confirmed he would indeed assume the presidency of China. By January 2002, Hu launched an informal task force on Sino-U.S. relations charged with developing long-term strategies toward the U.S. Congress, China's PR image in America, and the Taiwan issue. The report noted that Hu has gathered his own team to oversee China's relations with the United States which is headed by Zheng Bijian, vice president of the Central Party School, and Zhan Qizheng, director of the State Council Information Office.37 And most analysts saw Hu Jintao's attendance at Vice Premier Qian Qichen's January 24, 2002, speech on Taiwan policy an indication that Hu has also inserted himself into the development of cross-Strait relations.38

Conclusion: China Could Do Worse than Hu Jintao

China could do worse than Hu Jintao as its supreme leader. Although he is undoubtedly a remarkable self-promoter who knows how to use his patrons and patronage to get ahead, his résumé also reflects an intelligent, attractive, and thoughtful politician who knows how to develop a constituency among common people. Clearly, he went out of his way to visit every sand-blown county in desert Gansu and every fly-blown jungle village of Guizhou; he made a point of absorbing information about the problems locals were facing. Even dissident Chinese journalist Liu Binyan noted with admiration Hu Jintao's sympathy for the plight of Guizhou's college students and his immediate implementation of policies to rebuild crumbling schools and relieve tuition burdens.

In the Communist Youth League, he resisted the campaign against "bourgeois liberalization" and made all the right enemies. Later, in Guizhou, Hu Jintao was clearly a reformist, not an ideologue. He was chosen for Tibet because he had a reputation for at least giving the appearance of being concerned about the welfare of the public, something most of his People's Liberation Army predecessors failed to show. His reforms at the Central Party School also bespeak a forward-thinking politician who sees the bankruptcy of orthodox Marxist dogma and the need to remold the entire cadre hierarchy of the party.

But there remain unsettling facts. In Tibet, he saw the coming storm and was unafraid to call in the People's Liberation Army to shoot civilians in an effort to keep the region under control. Hu Jintao is highly uncomfortable with Americans and with the United States' place in the world. His few utterances on USA policy over the past decade are riddled with suspicion, if not downright paranoia. And the Central Party School's desperate search for an ideological justification of continued one-party rule in China offers little evidence that Hu Jintao is a political reformist as well as an economic one. In short, Hu Jintao is less likely to become a Chinese Gorbachev--i.e. a leader open to a fundamental change in the system--than he is to be a Chinese Putin whose overriding goal is to manage economic reforms in a way least likely to threaten his political power.

Nonetheless, China's "Fourth Generation of Leaders" is still more open to the West and to non-communist influences than its predecessors, and a rising "Fifth Generation" is likely to continue the trend. The hard "Left" in China is even more discredited now than it had been under Deng. And the prospects are dim that, even with the utmost efforts of a gifted Hu Jintao and his protégés, communist ideology can be reformulated successfully to legitimize one-party rule, dictatorship, and continued repression of basic civil and political rights. The trend in China are going in the right direction and Hu Jintao is part of that trend.

John Tkacik is Research Fellow in China, Taiwan, and Mongolia Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.



1. Charles Hutzler, “New Guard: China’s Next Leaders Keep a Low Profile As They Push Reform,” The Wall Street Journal, January 3, 2002, p A1. (Most biographies list Hu’s birthplace as Jixi.) Xu Zhenxing, “A Cross Century CCP Leader: Hu Jintao,” Guangjiao Jing (Wide Angle), No. 242, November 16, 1992, pp. 20–23; Georgie Anne Geyer, “China Looks to New Leadership,” The Washington Times, February 24, 2002, p. B3.
2. For a discussion of Hu’s early years at Tsinghua, see Cheng Li, China’s Leaders, The New Generation (Lanham, Md.: Rowan &
Littlefield, 2001), pp. 116–119.
3. Yi Ming, “The Logical General Secretary Designate; Among the Seven CPC Politburo Standing Committee Members, Hu Jintao
Ranks Fifth and Is the Youngest, At 54,” Chiu-shih Nien-tai (The Nineties), Hong Kong in Chinese, January 1, 1998, No. 1, pp. 50–52.
4. The Hus have a son and daughter. The daughter is living in the United States under an assumed name according to Hutzler, “New Guard.”
5. Xu Zhenxing, “A Cross Century CCP Leader: Hu Jintao.”
6. “Zui Nianqingde Guojia Fu Zhuxi Hu Jintao” (The Nation’s Youngest Vice President Hu Jintao), Ming Pao (Hong Kong),
March 17, 1998, p. A3.
7. Guizhou Ribao, August 31, 1988; cited in the unclassified biographic card files of the American Consulate General in Hong Kong.
8. Yao Jin (penname), “Hu Jintao: The Bird That Keeps Its Head Down,” China Brief, Vol. 1, Issue 10 (November 21, 2001), available at http://china. jamestown.org/ pubs/view/ cwe_001_010_002.htm.
9. Yi Ming, “The Logical General Secretary Designate.”
10. Xu Zhenxing, “A Cross Century CCP Leader: Hu Jintao.”
11. Yi Ming, “The Logical General Secretary Designate”; additional information is from the PEI database for the Princeton China
Initiative which includes a short unpublished biography on Hu Jintao.

12. Yi Ming, “The Logical General Secretary Designate.”
13. Xu Zhenxing, “A Cross Century CCP Leader: Hu Jintao.”
14. “The Nation’s Youngest Vice President Hu Jintao,” Ming Pao, March 17, 1998.
15. Liu Binyan, “Hu Jintao: Consummate Chameleon,” ChinaWatch (a publication of the Princeton China Intitative) Vol. 1, No. 1
( January 27, 1993), p. 4.
16. Ibid.
17. “The Nation’s Youngest Vice President Hu Jintao,” Ming Pao, March 17, 1998.
18. See “Tibet Secretary Leaves to Assume New Post,” Zhongguo Tongxun She (Hong Kong) in Chinese, January 12, 1989, cited in FBIS-CHI-89-010 of January 17, 1989.
19. Hu replaced a former soldier, Wu Jinghua, who had spent considerable time in Western Sichuan as a nonmilitary cadre. Wu
was close to the Panchen Lama and was reported to be very sympathetic to the Tibetans’ problems, being a member of Southwestern
China’s “Yi” minority himself. Wu was apparently replaced because he was too soft.

20. Jen Hui-wen, “Jiang Zemin appraises Li Peng, Hu Jintao,” Ming Pao (Hong Kong), April 3, 1998, p. 29.
21. The South China Morning Post reported on March 8, 1989, that the central government had deployed 170,000 troops (17 divisions of the PLA) to Lhasa. The divisions include artillery equipped with howitzers, mortars and anti-aircraft guns, infantry, and paratroopers. Aircraft in the region include fighters, bombers, and helicopters. In addition to the military, two or
three divisions of the People’s Armed Police (PAP) numbering 30,000 were also stationed in the area. See FBIS-CHI-89-044,March 8, 1989 p.11.
22. These events are cited from the FBIS green books from January through December 1989.
23. See FBIS green books for June 5–12, 1989.
24. A review of the Department of Commerce World News Connection (http://wnc.fedworld.gov) database from 1998 through 2001 shows 35 separate articles with “Hu Jintao” and “Tibet” in the title, while the most for any other province is three.
25. Author’s private conversations with Tibetan exile figures.

26. Lo Ping, “Political Bureau Dissuades Deng from Seabathing; Medical Checkups Find Jiang Zemin, Li Ruihuan and Hu Jintao All Have Problems” Cheng Ming magazine, No. 190 (August 1, 1993), pp. 6–8 (FBIS-CHI-93-149, August 5, 1993).

27. Hutzler, “New Guard,” and author’s private conversations with other analysts.
28. Joseph Fewsmith cites this document extensively in “Political Reform Ahead?—Beijing Confronts Problems facing Society—
and the CCP,” in China Leadership Monitor, No. 1, at http://www.chinaleadershipmonitor.org /20011/ 20011JF.html.
29. Fewsmith cites “2000–2001 Zhongguo Diaocha Baogao: Xin Xingshi xia neibu maodun yanjiu” (The China Investigation Report 2000–2001: Studies of Contradictions Within the People under New Conditions), (Beijing: Zhongyang Bianyiju Chubanshe, 2001); Fewsmith also cites Erik Eckholm, “China’s Inner Circle Reveals Big Unrest, and Lists Causes,” The New York Times, June 3, 2001, p. 14. Oliver August, “China Admits Unrest May Jeopardise Party’s Rule,” The Times (London), June 6,
2001, p. 17, says the book was still in bookstores at the time of the article.
30. Noted China political analyst Willy Wo Lap Lam notes that Zeng Qinghong heaped “lavish praise” on Hu during a class for senior cadres at the Central Party School in February 2002, saying Hu had made a “comprehensive and profound” analysis of the world situation and calling on Party School students to study and work harder in order to meet the “clear-cut demands of comrade Hu Jintao.” Lam speculates that Zeng’s praise is a sign Zeng lost a power struggle and was professing loyalty to Hu.  Given that Zeng has been Hu’s immediate subordinate over the past five years, it is more likely Zeng and Hu have been cooperating closely and have been working together on these key issues all along. See Willy Wo Lap Lam, “Hu Confirmed as Heir Apparent” at the CNN Asia Web site on February 21, 2002; http://asia.cnn.com /2002/ WORLD/ asiapcf/ east/02/21/ china.hu/index.html.
31. Lo Ping, Li Tzu-ching, “The Chinese Military Meddles in Policy Toward the United States,” Cheng Ming magazine, No. 199 (May 1, 1994), pp. 10–12 (cited in FBIS-CHI-94-087, May 1, 1994).

32. Jen Hui-wen, “Beijing Politial Situation: Jiang Zemin Appraises Hu Jintao, Li Peng,” Hong Kong Hsin Pao (Hong Kong Economic Journal), April 3, 1998, p. 29 (cited in FBIS).
33. Hu Jintao, “Speech by Hu Jintao at a forum marking the 20th  anniversary of the debate on the criterion for testing truth held in Beijing on 10 May,” disseminated by Beijing Xinhua Domestic Service in Chinese, 0136 GMT, May 10, 1998. The FBIS transcription of the speech says “Note reference to Hu Yaobang in graf six.”
34. Yao Jin, “Hu Jintao: The Bird That Keeps Its Head Down.”
35. Hutzler, “New Guard”; see also Fewsmith, “Political Reform Ahead?”
36. “Hu Jintao Jin Jun Jing Zai Jing Shang” (Hu Jintao bars military, police from economic and business activities), Central Daily News (Taipei), August 13, 2000.

37. Lin Miao-Jung, “China’s Top Brass Decided on Next Leader, MAC Says,” Taipei Times, January 21, 2002, available at
www.taipeitimes. com/ news/ 2002/01/21/ story/0000120829; also see James Kynge, “Beijing Leader in Waiting Flexes His Muscles,”
Financial Times, January 24, 2002, p. 7.
38. Zhu Jianling “Hu Jintao Jubu Jieru Dui Tai Juece” (Hu Jintao Gradually Moves into Taiwan Policy Decisions), China Times,
January 25, 2002.





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