Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 10

Hu Jintao, heralded by both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal as the next “reformer” in the People’s Republic of China, had the most muted high-level visit to Washington in memory. However, Hu took care to woo the business community. It is ironic to see the presumed future leader of the largest communist country in the world ringing the bell of the New York Stock Exchange. Perhaps in the scheme of things, business is what is most important to both America and China at the moment. Still, is that enough? Can Hu indeed become the first among equals in Communist China, as predicted by the commentators? Why was Hu here at all?

Prediction about China is fraught with peril. Who predicted the Beijing Massacre in 1989? For that matter, who predicted the rise of Deng Xiaoping, or Jiang Zemin? Moreover, no designated heir-apparent has ever taken power in the PRC. We have witnessed the demise of Lin Biao, and the fall of Hua Gaofeng, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Suffice it to say that the future of China has, to paraphrase a Chinese curse, always been interesting.

In the absence of transparency and orderly transition of democracy, President Jiang Zemin and Vice President Hu Jintao are locked in a subtle and intricate dance for power–Jiang to retain power and advance his own men, and Hu to attain real power. Even as Hu was visiting the United States, we saw Jiang making a landmark visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Jiang was playing to the gallery back home, and hoping the Bush administration wouldn’t make a fuss over his courting of the Axis of Evil; but Hu’s visit was more critical, and he was playing strictly to the business community and the administration.

Simply put, Hu is here because, in the post-Mao era, Chinese Communist leaders have depended on a combination of suppression and Western acquiescence to stay in power, and Hu is here to court that acquiescence. Why? Communism in China is in the midst of a dilemma. Communist policies have failed. To survive, the leaders must institute substantive reform. But once that begins, it generates its own momentum. Popular demand for more reform only escalates. If reform is followed to its own logical conclusion, the leaders reform themselves out of power.

Communist leaders, therefore, put restraints on reform to save, neither the country nor the people, but themselves. Since the death of Mao in 1976, we have seen that the communist leaders could not agree among themselves on what to do. They reformed, and put on the brakes; reformed, and deposed a leader; reformed, and carried out a crackdown; reformed, and deposed another leader; reformed, and staged a massacre.

Tiananmen Square was a turning point in every way. It showed irrefutably that Beijing is incapable of regime transformation. It showed that the Communist leaders would stop at nothing to keep power. It showed that genuine reformers in the Chinese Communist government could not survive. It showed that the United States prefers stability with a devil that it knows rather than applying the principles that it knows to China. Most disturbing of all is that in the dozen years since 1989, the United States and China have colluded in a pantomime, pretending that reform continues and that trade can transform the Chinese Communist Party.

Who are we fooling? Certainly not the Chinese communists. They know exactly what they are doing. Certainly not the Chinese people. Suppression remains relentless and vast numbers are driven to rebellion. Certainly not the workers in China, Asia and the United States. Crony capitalism rarely delivers a living wage and never provides equal opportunity.

Who, then, is more of a reformer, Jiang or Hu? The question can’t be answered. Neither of them is one. However, when the top leaders compete for power, China’s people and its neighbors sometimes have a bit more breathing space. A saying puts it another way: When the tigers are fighting each other, the monkeys live a little longer.

If reform is moribund, is the collapse of the Beijing regime imminent? No, not if a regime cares nothing for its people. Beijing is in fact more stable today than it has been for decades, because regime collapse requires three simultaneous conditions, not one at a time, but all at once:

  • acute economic stress,
  • external pressure (or a sudden withdrawal of external support) and
  • the emergence of a viable opposition.

Economic stress is permanent to all communist societies, because their policies are so unsound. But at the moment external pressure is negligible. Washington’s China policy is compartmentalized–security policy is separated from trade policy, and trade policy is separated from human rights policy, and human rights policy is aimed at appeasing domestic critics to protect trade, and not at exerting real pressure on Beijing. Besides, having a Tibet policy or a Taiwan policy simply cannot take the place of a comprehensive China policy–China’s size and population should have made that more than obvious. Indeed, a compartmentalized policy approach toward China may make sense to the Washington policymakers, but strategic thinkers in Beijing can and have walked circles around it. Moreover, contrary to popular perceptions, Chinese leaders have been extremely skillful in manipulating public opinions in the United States–witness the charm offensive of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai using ping-pong and pandas in the 1970s, and Deng using a cowboy hat to wow the crowd in the 1980s. Jiang Zemin has been less than charming with his silly tricorn hat and shaky crooning of American popular songs in the 1990s, but he is skillful in using American businessmen to lobby the U.S. Congress and the White House without having to pay huge lobbying fees. He has been no less successful in dampening critical reports of China by denying or dangling visas to journalists and China scholars. Hu is no slouch either. Many commentators have noted that he didn’t make a false move during his visit.

Even more damaging to the future of China is the decimation of China’s opposition since 1989, because the quality of a society’s future depends entirely on the quality of its opposition. Those few who advocated political reform within the Communist Party have been completely sidelined. China’s intrepid democratic leaders have been discredited, jailed or exiled. Religious leaders, regardless of their faiths, are persecuted ruthlessly if they refuse to come under state control. Labor or peasant leaders are dealt with even more severely, because they have even fewer overseas protectors. Economic stress is far worse now than during the time of Tiananmen–the only time when the PRC had a real opposition, but Washington lost its nerve in exerting external pressure, and Beijing learned its lesson. Now, Beijing efficiently nips all opposition in the bud, because without a viable opposition, all rebellions are localized and can post little or no danger to the communist system.

Unfortunately, with China, Washington is repeating its tragic mistake in Iran. It is acquiescing to a regime that brutalizes its people, and wondering why there is rising anti-Americanism among those people. It fumbles in protecting the democratic opposition, but blames the rise of extremism on the indigenous culture. Extremism, however, is not inherent in any culture, place or people. The reality is that only the most extreme and determined can persist in the face of severe persecution. Sadly, the extremists are never the harbingers of a better future.

Now that Hu has been here, what should be on Washington’s agenda? If Washington is serious about protecting the United States from further extremist attacks, it must face the fact that the current regime in Beijing is creating an environment that breeds extremists of all sorts, not only in China, but in North Korea, Burma and the Middle East. More important, Washington must become more effective in protecting China’s democratic opposition, for that points to the future. It can start by being more serious in helping the Chinese democrats in exile, as no opposition can survive inside China at the moment. The bottom line is, without democracy in China, there will not be a better future for us all.

Dimon Liu is an independent commentator living in Washington.