President Hu Jintao is entering what is likely to be the final 18 months of his time as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. Barring absolute disaster, (and in the world of Chinese politics the unexpected can never be discounted), some time late in 2012, probably October, he will be replaced—most likely by current Vice President Xi Jinping. We will not be seeing the last of Mr Hu, however. Since 1978 there are no second acts in Chinese politics, simply because political careers never really end. For instance Jiang Zemin, Hu’s predecessor, remains remarkably active for a man in his late 80s. From late 2012, Hu will have another 6 months as country president, and then perhaps as much as 2 more years as chair of the government and party Central Military Commission. After that, as a man just into his 70s, he could continue in any number of hidden, but immensely influential guises.
How do we assess the Hu era? It is true that the greatest achievement of the student from a modest background from Qinghua University in the 1960s, who spent the first decade of his life in the arid hinterland of China climbing up the Party tree, has been able to create consensus in a political organisation which maintains the ability to be savagely divided in its heart over some of the direction of the last three decades. Hu’s finest moment may well have been the time when he assumed power in 2002, achieving the Communist Party’s first-ever peaceful transition of power from one generation to another. Where once years of infighting and coups had been the norm Hu, with his lack of ego and quiet patience, managed to steer the Party through years of rumours of rifts with the Shanghai Band of the previous leaders and any number of other supposed threats.
On the plus side, Hu’s evident commitment to party procedure has strengthened the institutionalisation of the internal party rules. This explains his constant mantra of the importance of ‘party-building’ work. He saw China through a successful Olympics in 2008, despite some nasty moments in the run-up. He has significantly exploited the re-election of the KMT in Taiwan in 2008 by sanctioning the signing with the Taiwanese government of a major free trade deal, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, in 2010. He allowed China to take a major part in the global reaction to the economic crisis from 2008. And he presided over a country whose economy has gone rampant, putting in double-digit growth figures for most of the last decade, and increasing the size of its economy by 3 times. Finally, it looks so far as if he is going to achieve a further smooth transition of leadership from his generation to a new one. For the Communist Party Hu has been a loyal, stable and faithful servant.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But there are some big negatives. Hu came to power with Premier Wen perceived as being focussed on doing something about the big inequalities that the reform process has created. Despite all the talk in the 12th Five Year Programme which was just passed at the National People’s Congress this year, China remains a country divided between the 130 billionaires who have been created over the last decade since entry to the World Trade Organisation in 2001, and the 150 million people Wen Jiabao referred to last year who live in absolute poverty. Rural China is still the home to over half of the Chinese people. It remains as fractious, dissatisfied and contentious as it was a decade ago, the source of many of the country’s legal disputes over land, property rights and complaints against local officials. Petitions to the central government have shot up in the last decade. As a government who has stated that one of their main goals was to create a ‘harmonious society,’ China often appears anything but, and the ‘socialist countryside’ Hu talked of during the last 2007 Party Congress often seems a place riven by anger, frustration, poverty and protest.