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.
The new arrivals, particularly those elevated to the Politburo's elite Standing Committee, will probably become the party leaders five years hence, the fifth generation since Mao proclaimed a New China in 1949. As a result, their identities have been the subject of rumors and guessing for months.
Many analysts have said that Xi Jinping, 54, the party secretary in Shanghai, and Li Keqiang, 52, party secretary in Liaoning province, are the two most likely to emerge as contenders for Hu's job in the transfer of power scheduled for 2012. But backroom consultations among Hu and the party's other barons are still going on, specialists warned. In the absence of formal rules of succession, they noted, surprises are possible until the last minute.
Li Cheng, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution who has studied China's leadership rivalries closely, said that even after the new Standing Committee is unveiled, it might be unclear who is slated to take Hu's place. Unlike in past successions, he noted, Hu is obliged to negotiate and cajole, taking into account the wishes of several factions, including one loyal to former party leader and president Jiang Zemin.
"It's far too early to say they have decided on a successor," Li said. "Maybe there will be more than one candidate."
In any case, those in contention are in the same mold of buttoned-down, earnest party technocrats from which Hu emerged. The era of Mao, with his giant personality, of Deng Xiaoping, with his earthy twang and spittoon, and of the opera-singing Jiang seems to have given way to a less colorful generation that would not be out of place at IBM.
No one personifies the trend more clearly than Hu, who seems stiff during public appearances. Although acquaintances say he can be relaxed in private, Hu is known to have cracked a joke in public only once, in 2001, when he advised then-New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey how to keep his hair from graying.
Ma Ling, who co-authored a biography of Hu published in Hong Kong, said the president learned to get along and keep his head down as a child in Taizhou, a small Jiangsu province city far from the center of power in Beijing. Hu's father, a tea merchant, taught his son to respect the Confucian values, such as harmony, that Hu has often invoked as China's leader.
"The biggest characteristic of Hu Jintao was that he followed the party line very closely and never complained," Ma wrote, quoting Hu's middle school classmates.
Later, at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Hu avoided the political struggles of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and '70s, even though his sister was sent to the countryside along with millions of Chinese young people. He gained a reputation as a member of the "stand-around faction," students who avoided the turmoil by not taking sides, according to historians and acquaintances.
"He looked after himself," said Wan Runnan, a classmate of Hu's at Tsinghua who founded China's first big computer company and fled after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
After graduating with a degree in hydraulic engineering, Hu stayed on at the university as a political adviser, winning the respect of students for his willingness to listen to their problems in that turbulent period. During his fifth year on the campus, he joined the Communist Party but still kept back from the ideological struggles for which it was the theater.
"He was very coolheaded," Ma said in an interview. "He always knew when to sing and when not to sing," she quoted a classmate as remembering.
By the 1980s, Hu had been noticed as a comer in the party bureaucracy. At 43, he became the country's youngest provincial party secretary, and afterward he quickly ascended the party ranks.
In 2002, he took over from Jiang as national party secretary and as president the following year. By 2004, he had assumed the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, completing his grip on power.
Ma, whose biography first appeared in 2002, recalled that Hu heard about the book when conservative party supporters in Hong Kong complained about it, saying personal details about a party leader were inappropriate. Hu, then a fresh party secretary, sent for the book, read it and made it known he approved despite the uproar, she said. But to this day, he has not allowed the biography to be sold in mainland China.
At the same time, Hu presided over a flowering of aggressive reporting by a group of newspapers based in the southern city of Guangzhou. With his relative youth and apparent willingness to loosen restrictions on the news media, Hu raised hopes among many Chinese that he would lead the way to political reform as he consolidated his power.
Within a year, however, he was presiding over a tightening. Li Changchun, the Standing Committee member in charge of propaganda and ideology, had become uncomfortable with the Guangzhou newspapers' rambunctiousness, Ma said. In addition, one of the newspapers had written unflatteringly about Hu's tenure in Guizhou, where he served as provincial party secretary, and disgruntled farmers were increasingly resorting to violent protest in the countryside.
"He obviously came to believe that in China stability is the most important commodity," Ma wrote.