Hu Set for Second Term at China's Helm

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 14, 2007

BEIJING, Oct. 13-- When Hu Jintao took over as China's leader five years ago, many people inside and outside the country hoped he would become a champion for political opening. What they got instead was a cautious CEO of the Communist Party bureaucracy, pursuing economic reforms set in motion by his predecessors but determined not to loosen the party's grip on power.

Now, with the party's 17th National Congress convening Monday in Beijing, Hu, 64, is about to be anointed for a second five-year term as party secretary and president. Over the first five years, he has skillfully maneuvered to confirm his primacy in the party hierarchy and enhance his authority. But he has given no indication that he intends to use his carefully accumulated power to fulfill those early hopes for bold political change.

The way Hu wields authority matters most to China's 1.3 billion people; they are tasting the fruits of prosperity on an unprecedentedly broad scale but remain stuck under a one-party regime worried about stability and undermined by corruption. But as China's role on the world stage grows, decisions taken in the walled Zhongnanhai compound where Hu governs also ripple out to the United States and other countries, touching on issues from lead-laced toys to weaponry in the Taiwan Strait.

According to analysts and officials, Hu's natural tendency is still to walk a middle path, conciliating and avoiding confrontation. His second term, they say, is likely to feature an increased focus on social and environmental protections -- he calls it "scientific development" -- but leave undiluted the one-party political system inherited from Mao Zedong.

Hu, dressed as usual in a natty blue suit and red tie, his dyed black hair oiled and combed, outlined his intentions for the next five years in June at the Central Party School. In his speech, attended by the party's entire Standing Committee to underline its importance, Hu used wooden jargon to chart a steady-as-she-goes course, vowing to stick with the economic reforms but not to give ground on the party's power monopoly.

"Since the beginning of reform and opening, the Communist Party of China has led the Chinese people to start a brand-new path of socialism with Chinese characteristics," he declared. "The key to this success, [to] the fast development of China, is that we observe the basic principles of scientific socialism while adapting it to the special reality of China."

The program was not to everyone's liking. On what Chinese call the "right," a number of prominent political figures responded by urging political opening to match the changes in the economy. The most recent such call came from Li Rui, 90, a former secretary to Mao, who said last week that the economic changes of the last 30 years cannot succeed unless the Communist Party carries out a "self-revolution" and opens up the system.

From the other direction -- what Chinese call the "left," made up primarily of disgruntled former cadres -- have come complaints that China under Hu has abandoned its socialist heritage and left millions of farmers and laid-off workers exposed to the ills of a corrupt market economy. An open letter signed by 17 former officials in July charged that Hu may be preaching socialism but in fact is allowing capitalism to flourish under a hammer-and-sickle flag.

"Party secretaries become capitalists and capitalists join the party, while workers and farmers have lost their status as masters of the state," they pointed out.

Hu's response to the critics from both sides was to ignore their suggestions, censor their comments from the news media and proceed with his carefully calculated middle-of-the-road policies.

"It is impossible for China to return to the left, because that would mean poverty and backwardness," explained Huang Weiding, deputy editor of Seeking Truth, the party's main journal of ideology. "It is also impossible for China to go right, because the country is still too poor and has too many people. Moreover, it is impossible to abandon the leadership of the Communist Party."

Against this background, 2,217 delegates representing the party's 70.8 million members have been arriving in Beijing for the party congress, a week of staged debates and speechmaking that comes every five years. Their main function is to endorse Hu's leadership and policies and, more important, acclaim a new lineup of leaders who will be presented to the public in a ritual appearance closing the congress.

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