|Hu Jintao bad for intellectuals, good for
By Paul Mooney
BEIJING - In the run-up to the transition to the fourth generation of Chinese
leaders in 2002, intellectuals in Beijing were cautiously optimistic that Hu
Jintao would be a force for reform. But they conceded that the man who was
slated to be the country's top leader was virtually unknown.
That Hu remained a political enigma, despite more than two decades in top of
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) positions, came as no surprise. In the oblique
world of Chinese politics, heirs apparent have traditionally had to be
extremely cautious. Hu had been so careful, in fact, that liberal intellectuals
had dubbed him sunzi, or "grandson", a synonym for "yes man".
Hu is now supreme leader - CCP chairman, national president and head of the
party's powerful Central Military Commission. His predecessor, Jiang Zemin,
stepped down from the commission last September, leaving Hu with the reins of
During the first few months of Hu at the helm there were indeed signs of a
flowering of intellectual life, as emboldened Chinese media went on the
offensive. Unfortunately, this Beijing spring - a reference to the flowering in
the late 1970s - was short-lived. Since the spring of 2003, freedom of
expression has been on the ropes in China. Newspapers have been shut down,
editors, journalists and Internet dissidents have been imprisoned, lawyers have
had their licenses temporarily revoked, and intellectuals have come under
Chinese intellectuals now openly admit they misread China's new helmsman as Hu
the reformer. In fact, they say the political situation is the worst in years.
Some even yearn for the good old days under former honcho Jiang Zemin.
Xu Youyu, a political philosopher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
(CASS), said intellectuals are "surprised and disgusted" with Hu's actions.
"It's very strange," Xu told Asia Times Online. "When we were in the Jiang
Zemin period, we thought we were in the worst situation and that any change
would be better. But the policies of Hu Jintao are much worse than that of
"In 2003, like other intellectuals, I had some high expectations for Hu," said
Wang Yi, an outspoken law professor at Chengdu University in Sichuan province,
southwestern China. "But I didn't understand him - none of us did." Wang said
he is now "completely disappointed" in Hu, who he said "is ideologically more
conservative than Jiang Zemin".
Some say that Hu hasn't changed, and that he has always been a committed
Marxist. Like other top CCP leaders, he studied engineering at the prestigious
Qinghua University, known in the past for maintaining its staunch political
conservatism and turning out graduates who were youhong, youzhuan, or
both red and expert. From 1982-85 he served as the head of the Communist Youth
League, where he developed the core of his support.
"From the day Hu Jintao came up I said, 'Don't look for him to become China's
Gorbachev,'" said Jiang Wenran, associate professor of political science at the
University of Alberta in Canada. Jiang agrees that Hu has proved himself tough
in shutting down dissent, but he argues that things were not any better under
Jiang Zemin. "It was not all that free then," he told Asia Times Online, "and
there were still limits on how much you could say."
More important, Jiang said Hu is moving forward in solving the problems that
are posing the biggest threat to China. "The disparity between rich and poor is
so wide and there is so much social unrest, they have to put this at the top of
their agenda," he said. "It's about regime survival."
Jing Huang, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, said all new Chinese
leaders have to prove their mettle, and that Hu's actions are a sign that he
still does not feel secure at the top. "You have to learn from history," said
Huang. "When Jiang Zemin came to power in 1989, he was also labeled a
Huang said that the first step is for Hu to consolidate his own position. "He
has to be a dictator first to get the power he needs to do things," said Huang.
"This is what both Deng [Xiaoping] and Jiang [Zemin] did."
Hu has moved fast to secure his power and lay the foundation for the 17th Party
Congress in 2007, when he'll finally have the personal authority to set the
agenda for both the party and the nation. He carried out a major reshuffle of
local and government officials in 2004, with many of the newly elevated leaders
coming from the provincial and central ranks of Hu's power base - the Communist
Party Youth League. In a paper on new provincial chiefs, Cheng Li, a professor
at Hamilton College in New York state, pointed out that of 15 newly appointed
provincial leaders, none were princelings or the offspring of high-ranking
official families, but rather people who had worked their way up the CCP ladder
from less developed inland provinces, and who share Hu's concern for social
In January, Hu launched an 18-month campaign to "maintain the advanced nature
of Chinese Communist Party members", which will allow him to put some of his
own people into positions of power. The campaign has people in ministries,
factories and schools across China sitting down for regular study and
self-criticism sessions. In a report in the China Leadership Monitor, Boston
University Professor Joseph Fewsmith said that while party members are cynical
about such campaigns, they can nevertheless "give the party center new
information about lower-level party cadres and provide a basis for reshuffling
Jing Huang of the Brookings Institute said the campaign of reshuffling, study
and self-criticism is aimed at cementing Hu's position at the top of the party.
"This is really to show who the leader is," he said. "If you refuse to
recognize the big boss, you're out. It's a loyalty campaign."
With the resignation of Jiang Zemin as chairman of the Central Military
Commission (his last state post, less powerful than his former party position)
at the National People's Congress (NPC) this week, Huang says that Jiang no
longer wields much influence. The real challenge, he says, comes from the
localities. "Hu has to convince second-tier leaders that he's the real boss,"
Huang told Asia Times Online. "The challenge to Hu does not come from Jiang
Zemin, but from the people below him." He gives Hu six months to a year to
secure his position at the top of the CCP, after which he predicts that the
Chinese leader will be better able to promote his own set of reforms.
Ma Ling, the author of an unauthorized biography of Hu, accuses intellectuals
of being naive and misunderstanding Hu. The former Ta Kung Po (considered the
voice of the Beijing leadership in Hong Kong) reporter remains convinced that
the Chinese leader is bent on reform. "He wants to change, but he has to do
this in accordance with China's reality and conditions," Ma said. "Whenever you
touch politics, you have to be extremely careful and not move too fast - the
ramifications can be big." Ma expects Hu to reveal his real self at the 17th
At the annual session of the NPC, which opened last Saturday, a major theme has
been Hu's call for the building of a "harmonious society", a campaign that
focuses on the need to reduce social disparities and move away from the
policies of the previous leadership that emphasized runaway growth in coastal
areas at the expense of less developed inland areas. And this may be more than
just a propaganda ploy. Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao have promised to reduce the
gap in rural areas, where salaries are less than a third of urban incomes, by
lowering hefty fees piled on farmers, scrapping rural taxes, boosting peasant
incomes and offering assistance to grain-producing areas. The first three
quarters of 2004 saw increases in rural incomes.
Scholars, however, are split on how things will turn out.
When asked whether Hu could be a reformer in a Leninist straightjacket, Xu, the
political philosopher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, shook his head
firmly and said, "No, no, not at all." He continued, "I'm very pessimistic. I'm
convinced that the harsh policies are not temporary. Hu is following his real
"When Hu is more stable, he may relax the controls a bit," said Jiao Guobiao,
an outspoken professor of journalism at Beijing University and critic of the
government. "If China's economy improves, living standards will rise and
society will become more stable, giving democracy more room to develop."
It's still not certain, however, that Hu will succeed. For one thing, the
problems facing the CCP are huge. There is a huge gap between rich and poor,
corruption is still massive, and protests are occurring at a rate of about 160
a day, despite party attempts to deal with social disparities and corruption.
More important, Hu does not see his mandate as bringing an end to the Chinese
Communist Party dictatorship - his goal is to make it stronger. As a result,
the move toward reform can only go so far.
Paul Mooney is a veteran foreign correspondent based in Beijing.
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