Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 5

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

After President George W. Bush’s visit to China, whether–and how–Hu Jintao will modify Beijing’s long-standing U.S. policy has become one of the most crucial questions in bilateral ties. For some brief moments last Friday, the little-known Chinese vice president was basking in the global media limelight. He introduced Bush to the students at Tsinghua University and then listened attentively as the U.S. leader expounded on the virtues of a free and open society. The 59-year-old leader will take over from Jiang Zemin as the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) general secretary this autumn, and as state president in March 2003. Very little, however, is known about Hu’s ideas and statecraft, let alone his thinking on foreign policy.

While Hu was inducted into the elite Politburo Standing Committee as early as 1992, the former head of the Communist Youth League has concentrated on party affairs. It is true that as vice president and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), he should in theory have had some input in foreign and security matters. Jiang, CMC chairman and head of the CCP Leading Group on Foreign Affairs (LGFA), has, however, studiously kept Hu out of the diplomatic loop. Like Deng Xiaoping before him, Jiang has jealously guarded the portfolio of foreign policy and Taiwan.

It was not until last October that Hu made his first trip to Western Europe. And while the Bush administration had since then pressed for him to visit the United States, it was only shortly before Bush’s visit that the LGFA gave the go-ahead. It is expected that Hu will keep a low profile, as he did in Europe, while visiting the United States in late April as guest of Vice President Dick Cheney. After all, Jiang was said to be unhappy about the fact that while Hu was touring the United Kingdom, London accorded him the kind of protocol fit for a head of state.

The expectation among diplomatic circles in Beijing and Washington is that Hu will at least initially follow the U.S. policy first laid down by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping–and faithfully implemented by Jiang. This largely conciliatory policy could be summed up by a dictum stipulated by Deng in the early 1990s: “Seek cooperation and avoid confrontation.” Deng had admonished his followers that China needed a peaceful international climate–and the U.S. market–for the development of its economy. Along with the economic argument, there is a key reason why Jiang should have adopted what his critics call a pro-U.S. policy: The “core” of the Third Generation leadership hopes that improvement of ties with the United States and the European Union, which is integral to his “great power diplomacy,” will go down in history as one of his major legacies. For the first two or three years of Hu’s tenure, it is probable that the core of the Fourth Generation will toe the Jiang line on foreign policy. After all, it is likely that even if Jiang were to also relinquish his position as CMC chief later this year, the 75-year-old stalwart will still be the final arbiter of major matters of state for a few years.

It is also true, however, that Hu has ideas of his own–and that he is conscious of the need to quickly modify policy to suit the fast-changing political landscape of his country. Hence it is reasonable to expect that he could, if required, make significant shifts in foreign–and U.S.–policy before his first term as party chief is up in 2007.

While it is difficult to make predictions about most things having to do with the CCP and its largely secretive leaders, several points can be made about Hu’s foreign, and in particular, American policy. First, despite his reputation as a lightweight, colorless apparatchik who owes his meteoric rise to an ability to cultivate patrons such as Deng, Hu has a keen intellect–and a desire to ring in the new. According to a senior diplomat who was with Hu for part of his European tour, the vice president had a good grasp of matters beyond his portfolio of party affairs. “Hu surprised us with his thorough understanding of international economics,” the diplomat said. “At one meeting, Hu was asked about his views of the Japanese and Asian economies. He gave a well-rounded assessment of the situation in just ten minutes.”

Since early 2001, Hu has put together several think tanks to help him formulate policies on areas including the economy, political reform and foreign affairs. And, since late last year, he has sallied forth into new areas such as economics and world trade. For example, he gave a talk at the Central Party School last week on global economics and the impact of WTO accession on the Chinese economy. Even long-time rival, alternate Politburo member Zeng Qinghong, who chaired the meeting, praised Hu for giving a “comprehensive and profound” analysis of the subject matter. Hu has also displayed more initiative in foreign policy. For example, the bulk of the preparations for his trip to Europe last year–including the speeches–were handled by the Foreign Ministry and LGFA. However, sources close to Hu’s personal office said the vice president’s new think tank on foreign affairs was responsible for making ready his U.S. tour.

Signs of Hu’s new-found prominence in foreign affairs first emerged when he met a delegation of former American ambassadors and leading American Sinologists in January. Sources close to Hu’s personal office said the vice president could well, for practical and tactical reasons, make considerable revisions to Jiang’s so-called pro-U.S. policy. Much of Jiang’s placatory stance toward the United States has to do with the pre-eminence of the Shanghai Faction in Chinese politics since the 1990s, and the fact that, since Deng’s time, the majority of politburo members are spokesmen for the interests of the southern and eastern “gold coast.”

It goes without saying that coastal provinces and cities (including Shanghai and Guangdong) are the major beneficiaries of the open-door, pro-market and “pro-West policy.” Moreover, a good number of the children of senior Politburo members are either joint venture partners with American companies or senior executives in multinational ones. This has given rise to accusations by leftists, or remnant Maoists, that three unsavory groups–“pro-U.S.” Politburo members and their children, the rising class of private businessmen and multinational (mostly American) firms–have formed an unholy alliance to adulterate the party’s socialist creed and to “exploit” the riches of the land.

While not being leftists, Hu and several Fourth Generation leaders such as Vice Premier Wen Jiabao, are aware of both the widespread anti-Shanghai Faction sentiments and the negative fallouts of fast-paced integration with Western economies. Hu and Wen are also much more conscious of the aspirations of the central and western provinces. “Hu, who served for long years in the heartland and western provinces of Gansu, Guizhou and Tibet, has a good understanding of the needs and biases of cadres in the hinterland,” a Western diplomat said. “While officials in the western regions also want overseas investment, they dislike what they deem to be the Shanghai Faction’s pandering to American demands.” Moreover, Hu and the new Politburo must contend with the rising tide of nationalism. Giving the near-obsolescence of communism, nationalism is pretty much the only card the CCP leadership can play to promote cohesiveness–or to divert attention from mishaps such as massive riots caused by worsening unemployment.

Sinologist Jean-Pierre Cabestan, who heads the Hong Kong-based French Center for Research on Contemporary China, has said that there could be more friction with the United States on security matters such as America’s missile defense system a few years after Hu had taken over. He also said that Hu could face more pressure from nationalistic, conservative and anti-American groups in the party and society to be tougher with Washington on certain issues. He indicated that “Hu may be in a weaker position than Jiang to thwart pressures” from such groups.

Nationalistic–and anti-U.S.–sentiments have manifested itself the past year in thinly veiled attacks on Jiang–and his “weak and soft U.S. policy.” For example, in April last year, the president was taken to task for releasing the crew of the EP-3 surveillance plane–held on Hainan Island after a collision with a Chinese fighter–without getting a significant concession from Washington. In January, Jiang also came under fire as a result of the alleged bugging of his personal jet, the Chinese Air Force One. The president was criticized for keeping mum over the question of who had planted the listening devices–and for having the plane outfitted in the United States instead of in China. More recently, Jiang was ridiculed for suggesting to the Bush people that he be invited to the U.S. president’s Texas ranch while visiting the country in October. Given his hold on to power, however, Jiang has been able to rein in critics of his U.S. policy, including officers in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

It is true that Hu is not given to nationalistic excesses. Yet the vice president is untested–and he lacks national stature. And on sensitive matters such as Taiwan, Hu must show the world he can stand up to the Americans if he is to avoid an ugly confrontation with hardliners in and out of the PLA. At this stage, most of Hu’s advisers on the United States, including the head of the America Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Wang Jisi, are considered moderate figures who have also played a role in shaping Jiang’s “great power diplomacy.” However, these Hu aides are also aware of the need to at least be seen to be tough. In a recent article, for example, Wang cited the imperative of being more assertive with the United States so as to counter the incessant demands that Washington has been making on China. “The nature of America’s [China] policy is aggressive,” he argued, “while ours is a diplomacy of peace geared toward self-preservation.”

Wang also made an implicit criticism of cadres who wanted to make concessions to the U.S. in order to maintain a good Sino-U.S. relationship. “It is true that relationships count on the world stage,” he wrote. “Yet relationships are only a means, while [national] interests are an end. It won’t do to give up interests in return for relationships.”

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.