Hu's visit spotlights China's two faces

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 16, 2011

HONG KONG - When Hu Jintao visits the United States on Tuesday, he'll have a regal entourage of aides, bodyguards and limousines. But the Chinese leader will leave behind in Beijing the most potent totem of his power: the title of general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.

He's not giving up his day job as head of the world's largest political organization, but during his four-day U.S. trip, he'll assume an alternative identity. He'll be greeted at the White House and a Chicago auto-parts factory as Mr. President, a made-for-export alias used mostly for encounters with foreigners.

The morphing of roles flows from the protocol of his mission. Hu travels to the United States to represent China as a nation, not just its ruling party. But the shift obscures the true nature, and also curious limitations, of Hu's authority - his stewardship of a sprawling party apparatus that stands above all formal institutions of government but is no longer a rigid monolith obedient to a single leader. It also helps explain why Washington often has so much trouble figuring out who is making decisions in Beijing and why.

At a time when China looms increasingly large in U.S. economic and security concerns, the distribution of power in Beijing, as well as in Washington, will decide whether the pledges of cooperation that will be made next week by President Obama and the Chinese leader take solid form, or quickly dissolve, as many did after Obama's trip to Beijing in November 2009.

After a tense year that saw frequent verbal clashes between Washington and Beijing on everything from trade and currency to North Korea and the South China Sea, Hu is seeking to reaffirm China's position as a rising power but also to calm fears over its intentions. The trip "is intended to put the toothpaste back in the tube and stabilize the relationship," said Aaron Friedberg, a Princeton University professor and a former security affairs adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.

As China has grown stronger and wealthier, however, its leadership has grown more diffuse and harder to locate, and in some ways even weaker.

"China is no longer ruled by a strong man a la Mao [Zedong] or Deng Xiaoping, but by a collective oligarchy," said Susan Shirk, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration.

The diffusion of authority, which has accelerated steadily since the death of Deng in 1997, reflects both the growing complexity of society and governance and the personalities of senior leaders forged not by revolutionary struggle, but by the give-and-take of bureaucratic consensus.

The party, with some 80 million members, still blankets China and swiftly snuffs out direct challenges to its authority, but is itself a collection of different and often competing interests. It is not held together by ideology but by the glue of nationalism, a force that ranges from low-key pride in China's past and current achievements to strident jingoism.

"The U.S. always hoped that China would become more diversified," said Jin Canrong, vice dean of the School of International Studies at People's University in Beijing. This is now happening, and the United States "has got to get used to it." Competing voices mean that Chinese decision-making on foreign policy "will be more and more like that in the U.S. in the future."

A big difference, however, is that some of China's most powerful voices are heard only in secret. "This is one of the great frustrations and paradoxes about China," Shirk said. "It has a vibrant market economy that is open to the world, but a decision-making process that is very, very opaque."

Power structure

America's confusion extends to Hu himself, who stands at the apex of a highly centralized party structure but is sometimes kept in the dark and even defied by those he nominally controls, particularly the People's Liberation Army. In a meeting last Tuesday with visiting Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, for example, Hu seemed unaware that his military had just tested a stealth fighter jet. "Is this true?," he asked Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, according to a senior U.S. official.


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