Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 10

A Chinese saying best describes the risk of showing one’s clear political or ideological leanings: “The bird that sticks its head out gets shot.” Hu Jintao, the man who is widely expected to succeed Jiang Zemin as head of the Communist Party in 2002 and president of China in 2003, has been careful enough to act as “a bird that keeps its head down.” In all his public remarks, Hu has cautiously toed the party line, and no outsiders know where he really stands on economic and political reform and many other critical issues that confront China today. His image as a political enigma reflects not only a cautious personality but also the pressures on him not to make mistakes and not to upstage Jiang.

Born in December 1942, Hu graduated from the hydroelectric engineering department at the prestigious Qinghua University in Beijing–China’s MIT–in 1964. From 1965 to 1968, he worked as a political assistant of the university dealing with “political and ideological issues” among students. In 1968, during the Cultural Revolution, he was transferred to Gansu, an underdeveloped province in west China, to work as a junior hydroelectric engineer. In 1974, when Song Ping, a now retired party elder, was a provincial leader, Hu was Song’s secretary at the regional construction commission. Song once praised the young man as the “walking map of Gansu,” as Hu had visited different parts of the province over the years and knew the counties and their problems so well that he didn’t have to refer to his notes when asked to brief visiting senior officials from Beijing. There are other stories about his photographic memory. But according to an insider, Hu works very hard to memorize the speeches he is going to deliver or the notes prepared for him before meeting with foreign visitors. Liberal intellectuals in Beijing deride him as “the best student at recitation.”

After the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, Song Ping, Hu’s mentor, was promoted to work at central departments in Beijing, and this helped Hu’s transfer to the nation’s capital. From 1982 to 1985, he was the secretary of the Communist Youth League, a position giving him the opportunity to develop extensive contacts with his colleagues that are now regarded as Hu supporters from the “Youth League faction.”

At the age of 43, he became one of the youngest rising stars when he was made party secretary of Guizhou, a poor southern province. In 1988, he was made party secretary of Tibet shortly after anti-Chinese rioting had broken out there. Hu proved his loyalty to the party by enforcing Beijing’s instructions to crackdown and to impose martial law in Lhasa.

With the blessing of Deng Xiaoping, China’s late paramount leader, who once referred to Hu as the most promising leader of his generation, he has been on the powerful decisionmaking Standing Committee of the party’s Politburo since 1992. And he has been China’s vice president since 1998 and the first vice chairman of the Central Military Commission since 1999.

Hu is also the president of the Central Party School, a party think tank and training center for rising cadres. This job has given him the opportunity of building contacts with his students, including relatively young colonels and generals in the military. No one in the military dares to report directly to Hu by overstepping Jiang Zemin, who is chairman of the Central Military Commission, however, many officers who have been trained at the party school take pride in having established personal relationship with their president. Under Hu’s guidance, the school has been very active in exploring political and economic alternatives. Instructors and researchers there have been to Germany to establish contacts with leaders of its social democratic party, giving rise to speculations about Hu’s interest in reforming China’s Leninist party.

Chinese liberal intellectuals have given a nickname to each of the seven members of the Standing Committee of the party’s Politburo. Hu is labeled “sunzi.” In Chinese, it literally means “grandson,” but it is also the synonym for “yes-man” in colloquialism. Jiang, nicknamed the “actor,” have assigned Hu to thankless jobs from time to time to test the loyalty of the “grandson.” After the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in spring 1999, Hu was chosen to give an internal briefing to party and government workers. He openly said, “the hostile forces in the United States will never give up its attempt to subjugate China.” But in a television address to the nation, Hu left out his earlier remarks on the “hostile forces” while repeating China’s anger over the bombing. And he urged the angry students and Beijing residents who were throwing rocks at the American Embassy to get back to their studies and jobs.

Later in 1999, a student of Beijing University wrote a letter to Jiang Zemin, accusing Liu Junning, a liberal researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, of advocating “bourgeois liberalism” in his lectures. Jiang again assigned Hu to handle the case. Hu quickly instructed party scholars to write articles to criticize “bourgeois liberalism,” however, he made it clear that only five such essays should be written and they should be published by one national newspaper only. Apparently, Hu didn’t want to repeat a nationwide campaign to attack “bourgeois liberalism” as was the case in the 1980s.

This year, shortly after Jiang declared on July 1 that the party would open to Chinese capitalists, remnant Maoists published articles in their journals, fiercely attacking Jiang by alleging that he had departed from the fundamental lines of Marxism-Leninism. Once again, Jiang passed on the thorny issue to Hu. Acting on Hu’s instructions, the Propaganda Department of the party suspended two leftist magazines for “rectification,” but it didn’t order to close them down for good, and the media nationwide was told not to publish any such articles in the future. In handling this case, Hu had tried to patch up the quarrel in a way acceptable to both the conservative and reformist wings of the party.

On October 27, Hu Jintao began his five-nation European tour. The extensive news coverage in Beijing showed his friendly meetings with heads of state, prime ministers and business tycoons in Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Spain, but it was intended, to a larger extent, to strengthen his credentials as a statesman and to portray him as the heir apparent for the home audience. Europeans tried hard to size up this closet man, but Hu remained a political riddle to them. He frequently quoted President Jiang and China’s known policy on international and bilateral issues in his meetings with foreign leaders, as if he had nothing to say by himself.

This is because one of the most acute flaws of the Leninist party systems is that power is concentrated at the apex of the system without any existing means to assure a smooth political succession at that level. If Hu continues to play the role of the “grandson” by acting cautiously not to outshine Jiang, he will become China’s next leader after Jiang retires as head of the Communist Party and then as president in the next 18 months. At 59, Hu is young enough to rule China for ten to fifteen years. But for at least the first five years of his rule from 2002 to 2007, he will have to look over his shoulders, as it is yet uncertain if Jiang will step down from his most important position as chairman of the Central Military Commission that controls the army. Even if Jiang resigns in full, he is likely to continue to rule “behind the curtains,” a Chinese imperial practice that gave the dowager empress much greater power than the young emperor. The best guess is that as a leader of a new generation, Hu will show himself as a force for faster political and economic changes in the second five years of his rule when Jiang and other party elders are too old to exert their influence, but no one is sure of that. China is a country of great uncertainties, and so is its next leader.


Yao Jin is the pen name of a Chinese writer.