The Last Year of Hu’s Leadership: Hu’s to Blame?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 23

Hu Jintao among His Standing Committee Rivals

As the Hu Jintao era enters its final year, Chinese elites have started to review his administration, revealing many observers share a profound sense of disappointment. Hu Jintao has been criticized for his “inaction” (wuwei)—a frequently-used term in both Chinese blogs and daily conversations in the country. Some prominent Chinese public intellectuals have called openly the two five-year terms of the Hu leadership “the lost decade.” Recent Chinese nostalgia for retired leaders—particularly evident in Jiang Zemin’s extensively-publicized appearance last October and the public’s rush to buy Zhu Rongji’s recently-published work—further illustrate Hu’s unpopularity.

Increasingly negative sentiment about Hu Jintao and his tenure cannot be attributed to the fact that, as the outgoing General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Hu has become a “lame-duck.” Though similar on the surface to a U.S. president who is in the final year of the second term, the “lame-duck” notion bears almost no relevance to Chinese politics. In China, outgoing senior leaders will retain tremendous power until the very end, able to make choosing their successors and/or blocking some candidates the final act of their official tenure.

Foreign observers may be puzzled by Chinese criticism of the country’s “lost decade,” given China’s emergence over the last ten years as a global economic giant with astonishing financial, shipping and trading power. Beijing’s successful hosting of the Olympics, Shanghai’s reemergence as a cosmopolitan center as evident by the recently-held World Expo, the dynamic development of infrastructure in both coastal and inland regions and the launch of the country’s first manned space program all occurred under Hu’s watch.

How do we interpret the huge gap between the international perception of China’s economic rise and the growing negative views among Chinese elites about the Hu leadership? Should Hu be blamed for the problems perceived by Chinese opinion leaders? Could Hu’s widely-perceived “inaction” be attributed to the nature of collective leadership and factional infighting, including the policy deadlock possibly caused by Hu’s rivals in the Politburo Standing Committee?

Answers to these emerging questions, though tentative and subject to debate, can help observers assess Hu’s administration—its initial promises and ultimate pitfalls, its pronounced mandate and actual legacy. More importantly, this discussion may reveal profound political changes in the country—not only in elite politics but also in the broad relationship between state and society. In a sense, an analysis of Hu’s successes and failures offers insights about the daunting challenges and new dynamics confronting Hu’s successors.

Hu’s Perceived Mandate and Initial Optimism

Hu Jintao’s ascension to power was colored by optimism, with Chinese citizens and overseas China watchers alike expecting great things from this ambitious, if mysterious, populist leader. Soon after he became General Secretary of the Party at the 16th Party Congress in 2002, Hu’s vision for the country emerged through a new three-part mandate that differed greatly from his predecessor Jiang Zemin:

  • While Jiang was known for his aggressive stance towards Taiwan, Hu has used a soft approach, promoting stronger economic and cultural ties, high-level mutual visits and direct flights in order to reduce cross-Strait tensions.

  •  On the foreign policy front, Hu pronounced “all directional diplomacy” (quanfangwei waijiao) with great emphasis on the so-called “good neighborhood policy.” This was seen as a strategic departure from Jiang’s “major powers diplomacy” (daguo waijiao). Hu’s focus has been to improve China’s relationships with neighboring countries, particularly in Southeast Asia.

  • In contrast to Jiang’s focus on GDP growth and coastal development strategy with an emphasis on Shanghai, Hu adopted the concept of “harmonious society,” emphasizing socio-economic equality and reallocating resources to China’s inland region.

Hu’s early days of leadership seemed to fulfill initial optimism. Hu’s first speech as General Secretary was on the importance of the rule of law and he concentrated the first Politburo “study session” on “the inviolability of the Constitution” (Financial Times, June 11, 2003; Xinhua, December 4, 2002). Under Hu’s initiative, Chinese authorities, for the first time in Chinese history, released statistics of social unrest in the country and endorsed the notion that it is within the people’s rights to know the truth (zhiqingquan).

Hu and Wen’s administration began on a positive note with their decisive action during the SARS crisis in the spring of 2003, including firing the Minister of Health and the Mayor of Beijing for their poor handling of the crisis. Because of the new leadership’s effective measures, Hu and Wen gained reputations as populist leaders. One may doubt the effectiveness of the implementation of the Hu—Wen administration’s policies during the past nine years, but the policies themselves—eliminating the agricultural tax on farmers, supporting more lenient policies toward migrant workers, economically prioritizing inland cities to allow them to ‘‘catch-up,’’ establishing basic health care, reinforcing minimum wages in urban areas and promoting affordable housing projects—have all been consistent with their populist agenda.

Hu’s Pitfalls: Anything but Harmonious

As has happened to many top leaders in other parts of the world, initial enthusiasm from the public can quickly turn into deep frustration. Hu Jintao is certainly no exception. Of the aforementioned three-part mandate, Hu has perhaps made significant progress on just one: Taiwan-China relations. Cross-Strait relations have become visibly more stable, due partly to the election of Ma Ying-jeou in 2008 and partly to Hu’s pragmatic management of the issue.

Besides cross-Strait relations, China confronts an increasingly complicated and challenging international environment, despite—or perhaps because of—China’s growing power and influence on the world stage. At present, there are a number of flash points along China’s borders and seas. China’s support for North Korea may lead to a major military confrontation with South Korea and its main ally, the United States. Simmering tensions with Japan could very well be intensified by ultra-nationalistic sentiments in both countries. Disagreements over territorial rights in the South China Sea could exacerbate tensions with a number of countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam. Lingering issues between China and India (especially regarding territorial disputes and water resources) are too severe to be resolved. Not surprisingly, some Chinese critics argue that Hu’s stated “good neighborhood policy” has failed (Lianhe Zaobao, November 3).

Hu’s gravest pitfall lies in the failure of his mandate for a harmonious society. His rhetoric on the harmonious society resonates poorly—and ironically—as the country’s spending on internal public security has skyrocketed in recent years, overtaking spending on national defense in 2010 and totaling $84 billion (Financial Times, March 6, 2011). This number, which includes internal police forces and protest management, reflects many growing social issues, including increasing income disparity. China’s Gini Coefficient, the standard measurement of income gap, has worsened since 2002 to 0.47 in 2010, far exceeding the 0.4 figure that scholars say indicates a potential for social destabilization. Official corruption also has reached an unprecedented scale during the past few years. This is particularly noticeable in the domain of state-monopolized industries such as railways, petroleum, utilities, banking and telecommunications. China’s official media recently reported that a bureau-level official in China’s Ministry of Railways held Swiss and American bank accounts with assets of US$2.8 billion (The Telegraph, August 1).

Disillusionment of Public Intellectuals and the Middle Class

If the severity of official corruption under Hu’s watch leads the so-called “new left” intellectuals to be critical of Hu’s “inaction” on this important issue, liberal intellectuals have been even more disappointed by Hu’s empty promises of political reforms and the increasingly tight media and the Internet controls. China’s political reforms, including intra-Party elections, have made almost no progress at all since the Fourth Plenum of the 17th Central Committee in the fall of 2009. Many important institutional measures in intra-Party elections, in fact, were adopted either at the 13th Party Congress in 1987 or the 15th Party Congress in 1997. Hu Jintao also presumably ordered—or has allowed—the harsh treatment of Liu Xiaobo and other political dissidents, harassment of human rights lawyers and more restrictions on NGOs.

Disillusionment about Hu’s leadership is arguably most widespread among the vast number of the middle class. The middle class has some strong reasons to be upset with the Hu administration, including the aforementioned corruption, media and Internet censorship, the increasing monopoly of SOEs and the shrinking of the private sector—what the Chinese call “the state advances and private companies retreat” (guojin mintui). Members of the middle class often complain that they—rather than the rich class—shoulder most of the burden for Hu’s harmonious society policy intended to help vulnerable socio-economic groups such as farmers, migrant workers and the urban poor. The high unemployment rate among college graduates, who often come from middle class families—over one million each year fail to find work—also has angered the middle class. The admission rate for civil service exams has become remarkably low, reaching just 1.9 percent this year, in sharp contrast to ten years ago when government employees were leaving to “jump into the sea of the private business sector” (xiahai) (Xinhua, November 27).

When considering these criticisms, it may be too early to make any definite verdicts on Hu’s accomplishments or lack thereof. Additionally, many of the issues that emerged or were not resolved during Hu’s administration may have structural or cyclical origins that were beyond Hu’s control. One also may argue reasonably the above criticisms reflect only the views of certain groups such as opinion leaders, scholars and the middle class. President Hu may remain popular among the vast number of peasants and migrant workers. In the age of information, with penetrating social media, opinion leaders in particular and the middle class in general often control the political discourse.

The famous Chinese story about the “77 yuan rent” is particularly revealing. Last January, to ostensibly showcase the government’s housing assistance programs, Hu visited a woman and her daughter in a subsidized Beijing apartment with a reported monthly rent of 77 yuan ($12)—a tenth of the usual cost. Following the visit, the Internet exploded with accusations of fraud and corruption on the parts of the renter and the local government. This incident damaged Hu’s populist image in the Chinese public, leading talk show hosts and other opinion leaders to mock him for being out of touch with ordinary citizens’ lives (Duowei News, January 6).

Collective Leadership and the Blame Game

It has often been said that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. In China, like elsewhere, political expediency encourages finding a scapegoat for policy problems and political pitfalls. No top leader is willing to accept all the blame for government deficiencies and socio-economic problems in their administration.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party is no longer led principally by a strongman, but instead consists of two informal and almost equally powerful competing political coalitions. Hu is no more than the “first among equals” in the nine-person Politburo Standing Committee. The two major coalitions in Chinese politics are the “populist coalition”, led by President Hu and Premier Wen, and the “elitist coalition”, led by Chairman of the National People’s Congress Wu Bangguo and Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Jia Qinglin. The two leading power contenders in the next generation of leaders, Vice President Xi Jinping and Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang, each represent one of these two coalitions.

The elitist group generally represents the interests of entrepreneurs and the coastal region while the populist coalition often represents the interests of the laboring classes and the inland region. The elitist coalition consists of princelings and the Shanghai gang while the populist coalition consists of former Chinese Communist Youth league officials, Hu’s power base.

To a certain extent, Hu can reasonably blame leaders in the elitist coalition for blocking his macroeconomic control policy to contain the property bubble. After several years of backroom dealings, Hu finally was able to fire former Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu, partly for Chen’s outspoken opposition to such a policy. Hu’s affordable subsidized housing program was impeded largely by corporate real estate interest groups, which have strong ties with elitist leaders. Currently, Hu Jintao may be even more irritated by Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, an elitist heavyweight with a princeling background, who lately has adopted Hu’s populist policy agenda to undermine Hu’s authority. Bo has been pursuing aggressively a self-promotion campaign that aims to set up Chongqing as a political model for the nation ("Bo Xilai’s Campaign for the Standing Committee and the Future of Chinese Politicking," China Brief, November 11).

Growing political transparency, open ideological disputes and policy debates can be seen as healthy developments in China’s governance. There may come a time however when internal ideological disagreements and blame games in the top leadership may become too divisive to reconcile, making the decision-making process lengthier and more complicated and perhaps even resulting in deadlock.

In China, as in the United States, top leaders’ honeymoon period has become short. As early as 2005, distinguished Chinese Academy of Social Sciences philosopher Xu Youyu and Chengdu University law professor Wang Yi were expressing their disappointment with Hu. Xu claimed “the policies of Hu Jintao are much worse than that of Jiang.” Wang echoed his comments, noting Hu “is ideologically more conservative than Jiang Zemin” (Asia Times, March 10, 2005). If this trend is correct, when Xi Jinping takes office as General Secretary in the fall of 2012, he will have little time to settle in. Xi will have to differentiate himself from his predecessor by presenting a new and clear vision and taking concrete steps toward correcting persistent problems.

In the end, this analysis is not about who to blame and is not about Hu’s legacy, but is rather about the political process that is devolving into increasingly bitter factional infighting that has the potential to lead to political gridlock in China. From a broader perspective, it reveals the rapid change in Chinese society, the growing power of the middle class and social media, the role of public opinion and, most importantly, the urgency for reform of the Chinese political system to better accommodate these new changes. The blame for policy problems does not rest entirely on Hu’s shoulders, but rather is shared among the many players that make up China’s political elite. That being said, Hu is the top leader of a rising China with its own promises and pitfalls, and, as former U.S. President Harry Truman said, “the buck stops here.”