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Hu Tightens Party's Grip On Power

Chinese Leader Seen As Limiting Freedoms

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page A01

BEIJING -- More than two years after taking office amid uncertainty about his political views, Chinese President Hu Jintao is emerging as an unyielding leader determined to preserve the Communist Party's monopoly on power and willing to impose new limits on speech and other civil liberties to do it, according to party officials, journalists and analysts.

Some say Hu has cast himself as a hard-liner to consolidate his position after a delicate leadership transition and could still lead the party in a more open direction. There is a growing consensus inside and outside the government, however, that the 62-year-old former engineer believes the party should strengthen its rule by improving its traditional mechanisms of governance, not by introducing democratic reforms.


Chinese President Hu Jintao attends this weekend's Asia-Africa summit in Jakarta, at a time when he is increasingly seen as a hard-liner. (Suzanne Plunkett -- AP)

Hu has placed particular emphasis on tightening the party's control over public opinion, presiding over a crackdown to restore discipline to state media and intimidate dissident intellectuals. He has also gone further than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, by adopting new measures to regulate discussions on university Internet sites and the activities of nongovernmental organizations.

The crackdown has been a great disappointment to scholars and party officials who welcomed Hu's rise to power in the hope he might be more open to political reform than Jiang. After giving him the benefit of the doubt during a long political honeymoon, many have concluded Hu is an ideologically rigid and exceedingly cautious apparatchik who recognizes the party's authoritarian system is in trouble but wants to repair it.

"He is the ultimate product of the system," said one party academic with access to the leadership who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He never studied overseas or had much contact with the outside world. He was educated by the system, spent his entire career in the system, and his values are the same as the system's."

In international affairs, Hu's government has taken steps that appeal to nationalist sentiment, passing an anti-secession law authorizing the use of force against Taiwan and by allowing, if not orchestrating, a series of anti-Japanese street demonstrations. But he has also been careful not to stray far from the party's traditional foreign policies.

Hu sealed his reputation after taking control of the military at a meeting of the party's ruling elite in September, a final step in his long climb to power. On the last day of the conclave, in his first major address to the 300-plus member Central Committee as the nation's undisputed new leader, Hu warned that "hostile forces" were trying to undermine the party by "using the banner of political reform to promote Western bourgeois parliamentary democracy, human rights and freedom of the press," according to a person given excerpts of the speech.

Hu said China's enemies had not abandoned their "strategic plot to Westernize and split China." He blamed the fall of the Soviet Union on policies of "openness and pluralism" and on the efforts of "international monopoly capital with the United States as its leader." And in blunt language that party veterans said recalled Mao Zedong's destructive Cultural Revolution, he urged the leadership to be alert to the danger of subversive thinking.

"Don't provide a channel for incorrect ideological points of view," the person who had read some of the speech quoted Hu as saying. "When one appears, strike at it, and gain the initiative by subduing the enemy."

Hu said relaxation of such efforts to manage ideology could endanger the party and argued that the Soviet Union collapsed because Mikhail Gorbachev allowed the United States and others to spread subversive ideas there, according to those with knowledge of the speech.

"History has already proven that when hostile forces want to create disorder in a society and subvert a political power, they often first make a breakthrough with ideology and start by confusing people's thinking," said a Nov. 23 editorial in the People's Daily, the party's flagship newspaper, that the sources said quoted directly from Hu's speech.

The party's reformist wing has been especially alarmed by Hu's penchant for using hard-line rhetoric from the Cultural Revolution, the devastating political movement that rocked China in the decade before Mao's death in 1976. Hu joined the party as a college student shortly before the movement began and spent much of it as a low-level official in one of the country's poorest provinces.

In a recent comment often cited as a clue to his thinking, Hu wrote in an instruction to propaganda officials that though the economic policies of communist allies Cuba and North Korea were flawed, their political policies were correct, according to a person who saw the instruction and others briefed on it. The remark, first reported by the Hong Kong magazine Open, stunned many in the party who consider the two countries repressive and isolated from the rest of the world.

Party officials said Hu's statements have led propaganda, education, culture and security officials in Beijing and the provinces to take a harder line against criticism of the government and discussion of sensitive subjects, such as political reform and the 1989 crackdown on the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.


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