Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 9

By Baopu Liu

The performance of Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao during his coming visit to the United States is largely predictable, because the boundaries that restrict his public showcase of personality and views are predefined and impossible to ignore. The foremost limitation is that Mr. Hu, the chosen successor to China’s top position of power, will not immediately be in charge. It is universally believed that Mr. Hu’s biggest strength comes from his ability to “steer out of trouble and controversies” while holding on to his entitlement to the top power, bestowed upon him by the deceased paramount leader Deng Xiaoping years ago. He survived as his opponents watched and waited, eager to exploit his mistakes. That is to say, on all important issues, Mr. Hu cannot deviate from what President Jiang and Premier Zhu Rongji have already said in public–at least for now.

First, he must continue to praise “China’s openness to the world,” which is required to uphold Deng’s legacy, the main source of his legitimacy. He will also continue to praise the importance of the Sino-U.S. bilateral relationship and show a degree of “tolerance” when the United States constricts China’s perceived interests, a policy feature at the core of President Jiang Zemin’s foreign policy making.

Probing Hu during his time in the United States is evidently on many people’s minds. Certainly, U.S. politicians, lawmakers and editorial writers are preparing tough questions designed to test and even provoke his immediate and emotional response. Perhaps some tough ones, such as about China’s human rights situation. Any such attempts would at best show off Hu’s “acting abilities” rather than his aptitude to handle foreign affairs. After all, such tough questions have all been posed, over the years, by foreign press and politicians to Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji. Imitations and repeats are a certainty.

What do Chinese politicians without the charisma of Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping do when they meet Western dignitaries? The answer is easy: They put on a “liberal attitude and a personally relaxed air,” sing a song or make a joke. They know this will get them far in the Western diplomatic apparatus, because it is contrary to the Western impression that whoever comes from Chinese Communist officialdom must be serious, wooden and incapable of some human silliness. For years, some high U.S. officials have regarded Chinese President Jiang Zemin as “a liberal reformer,” and Premier Zhu Rongji as “China’s Gorbachev,” in spite of everything, because Jiang knows how to recite “The Gettysburg Address” and Zhu knows how to tell a few self-deprecating jokes.

Putting on a “liberal image” is most likely what Vice President Hu Jintao will do when he visits the United States.

There is much wishful thinking that Hu as China’s “next generation” leader is going to have a grand vision and the boldness to carry out political reforms, believed by many as a must for China to fit comfortably into the modern world. In answer to a recent online survey question–“Do you think Hu Jintao can effect meaningful reform in China?”–46.5 percent said yes and 20.5 percent said no. The same kind of wishful thinking has affected, in real terms, the way the United States treated other Chinese leaders–Qiao Shi, Jiang Zeming and Zhu Rongji–in the past.

For those yearning for China to carry out meaningful political reforms, there is no doubt that romanticizing the future on the basis of the hopelessness of the present is most attractive. It is, nevertheless, irrational and unsupported by evidence. It was Deng Xiaoping, the “grand architect” of China’s reform era, who tolerated no dissent and ordered the crackdown on demonstrators in both 1979 and 1989. It was Jiang Zemin, the current president, who does not even have the blood of the students in Tiananmen Square on his hands, who eradicated political reform in its entirety. It is Premier Zhu Rongji, praised by Western admirers as “deserving of the Noble Prize in Economics,” who is in charge of the largest rapid-growth economy under which the incomes of 800 million rural poor is at a standstill.

Instead of probing or testing Hu, perhaps the best we can hope for is that the United States will make the most of the opportunity, when face to face with China’s future leader, to give him an accurate impression of just how the world’s only superpower is prepared to cope with the largest rising power both realistically and rationally. Then, perhaps, Hu could take that impression home. It could help him in the years to come to make a progressive and rational choice for both China and its foreign policy.

Baopu Liu–a specialist in Chinese politics and foreign affairs, and a Beijing native–writes political commentary for major publications in Hong Kong and the United States.

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