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.
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.
While the Hu era has been one of major economic advances, with the elite leadership never wandering far from Dengist orthodoxy and continuing to take the creation of prosperity as the key task, the rapid development of the country has left political and social developments out of step with economic ones. Hu’s intrinsic cautiousness means that even the limited talk of political reform in the late Jiang period has been stalled. Migration of national village elections to townships was stopped, with a refocus on the much more illusive ‘intraparty democracy’ from the mid 2000s. Support for greater focus on rule of law remains beset by suspicions about the political ambitions of lawyers— something party ideologues blamed the Colour Revolutions around 2005 on. Civil society remains vulnerable, lacking a proper legal framework. And in the last two years, since the closing down of Open Constitution, an influential NGO in Beijing supporting freedom of information and legal reform, Hu’s government has mounted an increasingly aggressive campaign against activists, rights lawyers and intellectuals who are seen to challenge its right to a monopoly on power.
We should not be so surprised. A booming economy and yet shrinking space for civic and political activity might look contradictory, but in the minds of figures like Hu, they are perfectly compatible. Hu’s earliest political experience was from the Cultural Revolution, a period during which China was beset by violent internal upheaval and what some veterans of that era call ‘a surfeit of democracy.’ To them, the most precious thing is stability. Not surprisingly, therefore, for Hu and no doubt most of the key figures in the politburo around him, a clampdown like the one that has occurred recently is a price well worth paying to keep things on track for China to be a middle income country by 2020, and one that can then be in a position to address some of the historic grievances from the powerful memory of the ‘century of humiliation’ before the PRC came into existence.
China under Hu has become a more powerful, more forceful and more important country. Its future dominance looks more certain. But it remains a country that confuses and sometimes worries those outside. Hu’s reticence as a national leader, his lack of profile and ego, the things that have made him a successful Party secretary, are also the very things that inhibit him as a spokesperson or face of the new, emerging China. Even to Chinese, he can seem opaque, elusive and mysterious. While he had become a more confident international statesman (witness his successful visit to the US in January 2011), for one of the world’s most important and powerful men, he remains calamitously underexposed and unknown. At key moments in the last two years, in issues with Japan, over the Nobel Prize to Liu Xiaobo, and during spats with the US, his voice was needed, but he remained aloof and silent. In this area, his likely successor Xi Jinping will have to be different.
Dr. Kerry Brown is the head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House in London.