Year of the (Dark) Horse: Hu Jintao

Would-be reformer or faceless apparatchik?

The enigmatic profile of 59-year old Vice-President Hu Jintao has been under a magnifying glass in most world capitals since he was unofficially named China’s next ruler. His resume is open, yet unrevealing. It shows an orthodox Communist bureaucrat playing by the rules of the apparat on his way up the ladder, but gives no clues to how he will handle the top job in the 15 years in which he could hold it. There is no clue to how, for instance, he will address the hottest dilemma facing China: How much longer can the most populous country in the world continue to play the double game of maintaining an open economy and a closed, illiberal political system.

Later this year, President Jiang Zemin, 75, after presiding over China’s current economic leap forward, will hand over his post of secretary general of the Communist part, after more than a decade in power. He will retire as president next year. But the word going round the grapevine is that he will want to hang on to some of the power – if not its trappings, such as a role in Beijing’s key relationship with Washington or even as head of the military affairs commission that runs the armed forces – at least until the new man learns his paces.

Last year, after Hu, the youngest of China’s top five, was presented as heir apparent, it was found necessary to begin urgent repairs on a major hole in his grooming: his lack of experience in foreign affairs.

The rising leader had never been known to travel, appear in an interview with a foreign media outlet or made friends with an American diplomat.

Last October, the dark horse was dispatched on a coming-out whirl of foreign parts, Moscow, Paris, Berlin, London, Tokyo, Amman, Minsk, Madrid. His hosts danced attendance but were left puzzling over his impenetrable image. China’s future ruler had nothing clear to say on democracy, human rights, the global economy or other thorny issues, such as Taiwan, weapons proliferation and religious and political freedoms. He stuck to such safe issues as anti-terrorism, much on every mind in the weeks after the September 11 terror attacks on America.

President George W. Bush, during his two-day visit to China, February 21-22, was not allowed a tete-a-tete with the mystery man, on the pretext of protocol. They rubbed shoulders publicly at the top table of President Jiang Zemin’s banquet in honor of his American guest. They met again in public when the vice president chaired Bush’s appearance and speech at Tsinghua University, of which the Chinese Vice President is a hydraulic engineering graduate.

Intensely curious about tomorrow’s ruler of China, with whom Bush may have to co-habit in the same global arena for a possible seven years, Washington has invited him for a visit this year.

Since no ruler has ever been known to clear his desk out before handing over, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Beijing are certain Jiang Zemin will bequeath his successor unfinished business, including the most intractable areas of Sino-American disagreement.

In Washington, Hu can therefore expect a polite if tough grilling on the very issues the US and Chinese presidents left unresolved at their summit this week.

Most disappointing for Bush was the impasse in his efforts to persuade China to stop selling weapons of mass destruction and missile technology to Iran, Pakistan, North Korea and rogue nations in general. Neither were American expectations met as regards the release of prominent political prisoners and religious dissidents. Jiang repeated that China imprisoned those who broke the law, not because of their religious beliefs. He indicated resentment at what appeared in Chinese eyes interference in their domestic affairs.

Iraq – and its targeting in the American war on terror – was another sticking point in the Bush-Jiang summit. Beijing does not share the Bush axis of evil formulation in relation to Baghdad.

For that matter, Washington and Beijing do not see eye to eye on more than one fundamental definition. These gray areas will present the next Chinese ruler with his foremost foreign policy challenges.

China claims it has not violated any international or bilateral commitments on weapons proliferation. The CIA in a report to the US Congress on January 30 accuses Beijing of a very narrow interpretation of its commitments. Washington has imposed sanctions on two or more Chinese firms accused of transferring chemical and biological weapons technology to Iran. China is willing to publish a list of banned experts and enforcement regulations, in return for the lifting of those sanctions and other concessions.

Terror is another touchy subject, with the Chinese asking why the global war on terror is confined to al Qaeda Islamic extremists and not the Islamic separatists in its northern provinces or the Dalai Lama’s anti-Chinese militants in Tibet.

America’s military presence in China’s backyard in Central Asia is very disturbing to Beijing, who fears its displacement in a region where it sees itself as the natural lead player and in which it owns vital interests. In the last two years, China has acquired a majority stake in Kazakhstan’s oilfields (as reported in separate article).

The Chinese vice president’s career does not portend a successor more amenable than Jiang, but rather a conservative hardliner, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Beijing sources.

In 1989, as party secretary in Tibet, he imposed martial law allowing soldiers to open fire on Tibetans protesting Chinese rule. Last summer he was quoted as vowing to crush Tibetan dissenters, although later he offered to meet the exiled Dalai Lama. Hu is also reported to have supported the military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square uprising that year.

Ten years later, he slammed the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war, authorizing demonstrations outside the US and British embassies in Beijing. He is quoted as issuing strong anti-American statements at the time, warning that the United States meant to put China down as a world power.

Hu became vice president in 1998 and a year later, won his first military post as deputy chairman to Jiang on the powerful Central Military Commission.

Just before the Bush visit, sources close to Hu tried playing up his liberal side as a potential reformer. They pointed to the liberal curriculum of the Communist Party School on the outskirts of Beijing, of which the future ruler is president, where students study European social-democratic political parties, free-market economics and Western management methods. One recent research paper recommended the leadership do more for “inner-party democracy”.

Vice President Hu may be a conservative at heart, but he is too canny to try and turn China back from its pragmatic thrust towards rapid economic development and focus on the profit motive. Questions of human, civil and religious rights may be regarded as internal Chinese affairs, but China’s youngest ruler may discover that the arbitrary lines between the two halves of the national ethos may eventually prove to be artificial.

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