Hu, 69, is battling strong head winds. He has long been seen as having a weak grip on power. And rampant criticism has bubbled up within the Communist Party about problems that have festered under his watch — including the increasing divide between rich and poor, widespread corruption and the growing need for economic reform.
But Hu’s biggest challenge is the same one he has faced throughout his tenure: his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, 86, who continues to be the dominant force in Chinese politics.
According to several current and former officials, party intellectuals, advisers and analysts — who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of heightened party sensitivities ahead of the once-a-decade leadership transition — Jiang is trying to secure key spots for his allies during the upcoming transition and, by many accounts, is succeeding.
The most important appointments, to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, will be announced during the party congress, which begins Thursday.
To help Hu make his case, the propaganda machine in Beijing has been in overdrive for months. Front-page stories have exalted “the golden decade” he has overseen, and state TV has reported pointedly on how incredibly happy the populace is these days. Last month, the government unveiled at least 20 books, eight brochures and nine documentaries chronicling “the brilliant achievements” made possible by Hu’s vague ideology of systematic progress through “scientific development.”
The furious competition between the two senior statesmen — and their large role in the patronage system that undergirds Chinese politics — only adds to the pressure on Xi Jinping, who is expected to take over the top job, becoming the first party leader in China’s history forced to contend with two former chiefs hovering over him.
“Hu is trying to do with his successor what Jiang did to Hu and what even earlier Deng Xiaoping did to Jiang,” said an editor of a party publication. “Each generation tries to hold sway over the next.”
‘A battle over personnel’
Some analysts caution against viewing China’s politics solely through the prism of Jiang vs. Hu. “It’s not always so clear-cut to say who is in which group,” one retired party official said.
There are also other players: the military, powerful state-owned enterprises and the rising class of “princelings” to which Xi belongs — leaders descended from former senior officials.
But there is widespread agreement that the two biggest centers of power in China today are Jiang and Hu.
Both were plucked from relative obscurity by Deng after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Deng hoped a clearer succession plan would add stability to the system; he appointed Jiang as his immediate successor and elevated Hu so that he could later take Jiang’s place.
Jiang built his camp of allies — called the “Shanghai gang” — drawing from his old base as the city’s party chief. He was known for a showman’s flair that remains rare among the party’s mostly wooden personalities.
Hu is more subdued. People who have met him describe a bland bookworm with a photographic memory, a stiff smile and an overriding sense of caution. His faction is often referred to as “tuanpai,” for the Communist Youth League he once led and mined for allies.
As the party congress has neared, Jiang has emerged from relative seclusion, making his presence felt with several highly public appearances. One of the first came in April, with reports of a meeting between Jiang and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, just a week after the party began its purge of former Chongqing communist chief Bo Xilai, for whom Jiang was considered a patron. That outing was seen as an early signal that Jiang intended to play a large role in the transition.
But one person with access to senior Chinese leaders warned that it is “not entirely fair to say this is a fight between two men.”
“It would also be a mistake to interpret the competition as personal hostility or disagreement,” the person said. “This is primarily a battle over personnel.”
A former party official agreed. Although Hu and Jiang had different focuses during their tenures, past leaders tend not to meddle directly in policy once retired, the former official said. “That’s why the appointments of their allies matter so much; it becomes their primary way of exerting any influence and protecting their interests.”
Hu has lost at least one major fight, failing to see his protege Li Keqiang named as his successor. Instead, Xi, a compromise candidate with Jiang’s approval, was chosen for the job in 2007, party experts say, and Li was positioned for the lower job of premier.
And if lists being circulated among party officials and experts are to be believed, Jiang has been similarly successful in elevating his allies over Hu’s into many of the next Standing Committee’s seats.
But some political watchers caution that Hu may be playing a deeper game, bargaining away slots on the Standing Committee for seats on the less powerful but more plentiful Politburo or perhaps preserving a seat for himself or Li on the commission that oversees the military.
A few also theorize that Hu is looking at this period in his presidency differently than Jiang — that he may want to leave the incoming leadership less vulnerable to the machinations of elders.
“You could argue that Hu sees himself as a selfless representation of the party, its integrity and institutionalization. He wields power but doesn’t play the game quite the same way Jiang does,” said Chris Johnson, a former top CIA analyst for China who is at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
A consensus-driven style
Much of Hu’s perceived weakness is a result of the difficult hand he was dealt when he took over as the top leader in 2002.
Jiang was so successful at consolidating power during his last days in office that at least five of the nine members of the Standing Committee were thought to be his strong allies. Jiang refused to give up his chairmanship of China’s military until Hu and others forced him out two years into Hu’s presidency.
“The best way to describe Jiang’s style is like a gangster,” said one party intellectual with close ties to senior officials from Jiang’s era. “He believed in an eye for an eye, but also in the flip side as well, returning favor for favor. That’s how he accumulated so much influence.”
By comparison, Hu rose quickly within the Communist Party bureaucracy in part by cultivating a reputation as studious and noncombative. At 39, he became the youngest at the time to enter the Central Committee, and at 43, the youngest provincial party secretary.
Surrounded by Jiang loyalists throughout his presidency, Hu adopted a consensus-driven leadership style, acting more to get folks on the same page than as a visionary, party analysts said.
“He is a manager who likes to tweak the machine. It is not in his nature to overhaul the whole thing,” said one former official, pointing to Hu’s training as a hydrology engineer.
Hu’s cautious approach, some experts say, has hindered his influence. Asked for his accomplishments, party members point almost reflexively to the unbridled economic growth of the past decade. A few mention better relations with Taiwan and the military’s expansion. When asked about the problems Hu leaves behind, the responses grow longer and more explicit.
“Ten years ago, when he took power, everybody was wondering what kind of leader Hu would be,” said David Shambaugh, an expert on Chinese affairs at George Washington University. “Now we know the answer. He is an arch-conservative, cautious, risk-averse, stability-obsessed apparatchik.”
Xi Jinping’s role
In many ways, the biggest factors in the future influence of Hu and Jiang will be Xi and his ability to quickly establish his own base of power.
Xi, though a princeling and someone Jiang supported, does not easily fit into any political camp. But many believe he will start his tenure with advantages that neither of his predecessors possessed — deep party connections nurtured through family and a growing sense that the country is in desperate need of reform.
“You have so many situations that now require proactive decision-making, and you have all the recent scandals and crises making many in the party eager to turn the page,” said Robert Kuhn, a businessman with ties to senior Chinese leaders.
“Ironically, because of that, Xi may actually be able to consolidate authority to get things done much faster than either Hu or Jiang in their first days.”
Others, however, say that if the past is any indication, Xi’s predecessors will not give up their influence easily.
“It is a natural thing when you have been the one in charge all along,” one party intellectual said. “It’s a hard habit to give up, especially in Chinese politics.”
Liu Liu and Zhang Jie contributed to this report.