Who is Hu Jintao?

Leadership succession in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has always presented problems because the nation and its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have traditionally lacked the institutions required to ensure the orderly transition of power from one leader to the next. However, today, 59-year old Vice-President Hu Jintao is apparently being groomed for his ascension to power, just as his mentor President Jiang Zemin was handpicked by former Supreme Leader Deng Xiaoping. If things follow plan, Hu will succeed Jiang Zemin as President and CCP General Secretary by 2003, one of the swiftest rises to power in modern Chinese history.

However, the man and his policies still remain somewhat of a mystery to many people.

Relatively little is know of Hu and his rise to power within the factionalized maze of Chinese politics. By 1997 he was the youngest member of the CCP’s Standing Committee. Political power in China continues to be effectively monopolized by the CCP (Zhongguo Gongchan Dang), which was initially formed in 1921. As recently as a December 1998 speech intended to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of economic reform, President Jiang Zemin indicated that the “four cardinal principles” of politics in China remain the leadership of the CCP, adherence to the “socialist path”, Mao Tse Tung Thought, and Marxism-Leninism. However, in practice, China is today a quasi-capitalist state with a booming annual economic grow rate of at least seven percent within recent years.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Chinese expert explains how the country’s vast political system works:

The CCP is China’s only official political party (55-60 million membership) and effectively controls all political decisions, with Jiang Zemin as its general secretary of the Central Committee. Jiang also has the State function as President and Hu as Vice-President. The Party Congress is the CCP's highest authority, and is convened every five years to elect a Central Committee of several hundred members. This Central Committee in turn elects a 22 member Politburo to direct policy. The local organs of CCP power are the so-called local peoples' congresses.

Chinese political power is extremely personal in nature, with some estimates having all major national policy decisions being controlled by some thirty individuals or political power groupings (ie. kou, or “gateways”), most notably the Standing Committee of the Politburo (about seven individuals), in addition to power groups of bureaucracies (ie. xitong). While China has in recent years attempted to reform and streamline its state bureaucracy (eg. separate regulatory and planning functions from commercial operations), its varied ministries and agencies have very complex, almost Byzantine, relationships with the State Council, the CCP and each other at central, provincial and local government levels.

Hu was a protege and fellow key official in the Communist Youth League with the reformist party chief Hu Yaobang (no family relation), whose death in 1989 was a key factor in inciting the Tiananmen Square revolt. Hu Yaobang had sent Hu Jintao to Guizou Province as party secretary, and from there to Tibet, where he exhibited pragmatic pro-economic reforms, but not pro-political reforms, and impressed the CCP hierarchy as a stable leader.

In 1988, Hu was instrumental in swiftly and efficiently suppressing a large anti-Chinese disturbance in the Tibetan capital Lhasa, which reportedly resulted in the deaths of some 70 protestors. Hu Jintao became the youngest member of the Politburo’s top elite seven member Standing Committee, and really gained national attention around 1992.

In 1997, Hu Jintao managed the drafting of the 15th Party Congress documents and chaired the event’s presidium, and as head of the Central Party School in Beijing was a key player in maintaining CCP ideology and propaganda, as well as introducing modern management techniques.

This linkage with propaganda organs may also indicate some involvement with the autonomous CCP intelligence organizations, the Ministry of United Front of the CCP and the Ministry of Foreign Liaison of the CCP. Today, he is at the top of the fourth generation of CCP leadership, and is a product of both orthodox Marxist and liberalized thinking.

Born in Jixi, Anhui Province in 1942, the son of tea merchants, Hu Jintao is a hydro-electric engineering expert with no known direct ties with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or the major civilian intelligence agency the Ministry of State Security (MSS). He attended Beijing’s Qinghua University, China’s major technology university and training ground for future technocrats, and joined the CCP in 1964. He missed the Cultural Revolution at university and was directly recruited into the CCP, but during the revolution was criticized and sent to work at a remote hydroelectric station at Gansu Province, where he rose through local party ranks during the 1970s and became a top official for Gansu party elder Song Ping. Like many of his contemporaries, Hu speaks some English and understands Western thinking much better than his elders.

It is said that he has table tennis and dancing as hobbies, and has a photographic memory. Mild and fresh-faced in appearance, he typically dresses in dark, well-tailored Western style suits.

In 1999, Hu Jintao was appointed to the key Central Military Commission, which could give him an opening to building a power base with the factionalized PLA officer corps. Hu is also active in the ongoing “Strike Hard” anti-graft, anti-corruption and anti-criminal crackdown, which may indicate a growing relationship with the MSS and its close internal security agency, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the PLA and the para-military People’s Armed Police (PAP).

He is expected to succeed Jiang Zemin in the key post as the head of the CCP’s Leading Group on Foreign Affairs and Leading Group on Taiwan. Hu also may inherit the leadership of a powerful new “Security Council” that is reportedly being developed to coordinate China’s various military and intelligence organizations, but it is possible Jiang Zemin may retain this key post.

Beginning April 27, 2002, Hu Jintao began a weeklong trip to the United States with a major objective of stemming Washington’s growing military and political support for Taiwan, which the PRC maintains is still a renegade province of China. In Washington, Hu met President George W. Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Military to military relations between the two nations are said to be restored, but Hu maintains the growing US relationship with Taiwan to be a major stumbling block to an overall closer relationship between the US and China.

This follows a recent trip by President Jiang Zemin to Europe and the Middle East which had an underlying objective of stemming America’s growing power as a unilateral global superpower in the wake of the September 11th attack against New York and President George W. Bush’s swift retaliation against terrorist groups in Afghanistan and elsewhere in Central Asia. Jiang had met with Iranian leaders including President Mohammad Khatami and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and reportedly indicated support for Palestinian rights as defined by UN resolutions, as well as signing technical cooperation agreements with Iran.

In short, if the US can play the Taiwan card against China, China can play the Middle Eastern card against the US through weapons exports, along with securing vital oil supplies for its booming economy. Increased support for rogue state North Korea is another, but perhaps less likely, option.

Bush’s recent slip-of-the-tongue referring to the “Republic of Taiwan” has not help to lessen growing US-China tensions, as China also continues an offensive missile build-up directly adjacent to Taiwan and the US responds with an increasing naval and rapid deployment presence in the Pacific. Many perceive the evolving US strategy on Taiwan being developed by Bush and Rumsfeld as the most anti-PRC since before President Richard M. Nixon began normalized relationships with the mainland through a “One China” policy some three decades and six prior US presidents ago; it is now not inconceivable that Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian could visit Washington. Senior US and Taiwanese officials now routinely exchange visits related to increased defense cooperation.

Relations between China and Japan have also grown increasingly strained, as Beijing perceives Japan on the course to full remilitarization. Territorial claims in the South China Sea are another flash point with Japan and the US in defense of its regional allies. The bombing of China’s embassy in 1999 by USAF bombers and the collision and crash of a Chinese fighter jet with a US reconnaissance aircraft a year ago are still major incidents that the PLA has refused to forget.


However, China has also indicated support for the US war on terrorism, albeit within UN guidelines, and has its own problem with Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups in east provinces such as Xinxiang. Hence, its criticisms of US actions against Afghanistan have been somewhat muted as it cracks down without almost any media coverage on terrorist groups within China under the “Strike Hard” program, while PLA generals fret over the growing number of US bases in Afghanistan and former Soviet republics that they perceive as an effort to encircle China.

Although the US does not consider China itself to be a “rogue” state, there is a right-wing lobby within Congress that is anti-China and perceives it as a new Soviet Union style major opponent by default; the Pentagon has paid close attention to recent PLA modernization efforts, missile and other weapons-related exports, and writings on asymmetrical warfare which embraces aspects of terrorism to defeat a militarily stronger opponent.

The US is planning to sell Taiwan a $4 billion array of state-of-the-art weapons including new diesel-electric submarines, radars, surface-to-air missiles, surface warships, attack helicopters, and possibly main battle tanks. Secure military communications have been implemented between the US and Taiwan. US concerns with China also center around personal, political (Tibet is a key concern) and religious (particularly the cult-like Falun Gong) freedoms in China, and China’s growing global economic and regional military clout. Prior to his trip to the US, addressing the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, Hu Jintao stated that China “opposes the strong lording it over the weak and the big bullying the small and has long pledged not to seek hegemony, not to join any military bloc, and not to pursue its own spheres of influence”.

Hu Jintao is not a leader who is intent on changing the political and social structure of China in a manner that Gorbachev brought down the old Soviet Union. He will champion steady economic, technological and military growth. Hu’s stability within the CCP power structure could possibly be equated with a lack of personal vision and dynamism or any attempt to challenge the basic power structure of China’s ruling elite, particularly party members and the senior PLA leadership. Hu is unlikely to totally transform the PLA from a political force closely linked with the CCP, to a non-political national army, although efforts may be made in this direction when a younger generation leads the PLA. The best China can expect is an elitist one-party state with increasing economic freedoms. A tough stance on Taiwan will be crucial for his maintaining his grip on power, and could cause direct friction with the US’s new perceived interest with the former island of Formosa. Retired leaders such as Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, and Zhu Rongji could attempt to manage the leadership of China behind the scenes, possibly with Jiang as a new “Supreme Leader”, a de-facto elderly emperor in the traditional manner of Deng Xiaoping which many Chinese are very comfortable with.

It is also important to remember that none of China’s recent chosen successors ever attained their position for reasons of factional politics ever since the traitorous Marshal Lin Biao was designated as Chairman Mao’s heir, only to be eventually murdered while feeing the country; neither did other Mao planned successors such as Hua Guofeng, Liu Shaoqi, or Deng’s designated successors Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang; Jiang Zemin was chosen more by a unanimous decision of the CCP inner circle during Deng’s waning years and had no serious challengers. However, instruments for a smooth leadership transition still do not exist, and the PLA maintains its watchful eye.

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