Ever since he became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and President of the Peoples’ Republic of China four years ago, Hu Jintao has remained infuriatingly wooden-faced and opaque. Over the past year, however, the shroud of mystery has begun to drop. Hu’s unbridled glorification of “Mao Zedong Thought,” coupled with his suppression of dissent in the media, has begun not only to reveal a true authoritarian, but also to belie the wishful thinking of liberals, both inside and outside China, who hoped that Hu would be a reform-minded leader.
It was the late patriarch Deng Xiaoping who in 1992 made the surprising demand that Hu, former Secretary of the Communist Youth League and protégé of ousted party chief Hu Yaobang, be inducted into the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Politburo Standing Committee. Deng, in effect, personally designated Hu as successor to President Jiang Zemin. As Deng had crushed the protestors in Tiananmen Square in June of 1989, Hu had proven himself to be “firm and resolute” in quelling anti-Beijing riots in Lhasa, Tibet, two months earlier. Both understood the dangers of political reform.
Hu, a life-long Party functionary, was able to fool most observers during his first year in office. He and Premier Wen Jiabao – often called a latter-day Zhou Enlai for his administrative abilities and willingness to play second fiddle – rolled out one impressive slogan after another: “Put people first,” “Run the country according to law,” “Render the media closer to the people,” and “Make government transparent.” The leadership seemed to be moving away from the ancien regime of Jiang.
Hu pledged to replace Deng’s elitist ethos of “letting one part of the population get rich first”– a policy that has produced a staggering wealth gap – with a more egalitarian approach. As part of his government’s efforts “to construct a harmonious society,” a tax on agricultural produce was scrapped last year, while the State Council vowed to boost annual investment in rural infrastructure.
But Hu’s administration invariably slams on the brakes whenever their “put-people-first” initiatives begin to threaten one-party rule. Hu’s Politburo has consistently refused to let peasants set up non-official farmers’ associations or trade unions. At the same time, it has allowed farmers across China to fall victim to an epidemic of illegal land grabs by local governments and developers.
Not only has Hu’s administration failed to protect the rights of the poor and the oppressed, but police and government-hired thugs now frequently harass lawyers and other activists who lobby on behalf of the country’s dispossessed. Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer – famous for exposing a forced abortion scandal in Shandong – was given a four-year jail term on the dubious charge of “organizing a mob to disturb traffic.”
Perhaps the most revealing aspect of Hu’s rule is his failure to reform the government’s outmoded institutions. In a landmark speech on administrative restructuring in 1980, Deng underscored the urgency of bringing about a “separation of party and government.” Hu, by contrast, seems to find little fault with the status quo, under which the Party remains in charge of not only government, but also state enterprises.
It is also becoming increasingly clear that Hu will continue to rely on a variety of politically retrograde propaganda tactics. He has revived the use of ideological campaigns, akin to those used during the Cultural Revolution, such as a requirement that Party members study The Collected Works of Jiang Zemin .
Indeed, Hu has sought to restore some of Mao’s luster. In a speech marking the Great Helmsman’s 110th birthday in late 2003, he declared Mao to be a “great proletariat revolutionary strategist and theorist.” While Deng had castigated Mao’s “leftist” errors, Hu’s hagiographic address made no mention of his manifold blunders.
Moreover, Hu has fomented nationalism, not by taking understandable pride in China’s impressive economic growth, but by demonizing Japan. He has become increasingly reliant on the facile notion that state-sponsored patriotism and nationalism can hold China’s disparate groups together.
Finally, Hu, Wen, and the rest of the top leadership have turned themselves into superb firefighters with an uncanny ability to, in Party parlance, “nip the seeds of opposition before they sprout.” Apart from sharpening the “tools of the proletarian dictatorship” by strengthening the Peoples Liberation Army and the People’s Armed Police, they have created a labyrinthine “advance warning” system to monitor threats ranging from peasant riots, urban unrest, and bird flu to the influx of Western ideas through the Internet.
Hu is due to remain in power until 2012. Given the economy’s solid performance and the docility of China’s population, there seems little doubt that Hu’s twenty-first-century market dictatorship will preserve the Party’s mandate to continue ruling – for now.
But it is equally obvious that Hu, the sphinx-like apparatchik in whom Chinese and Western liberals alike had once invested hope, is unlikely to deliver the more open and humane China that they thought he had promised. China under Hu has perhaps found its development model: a form of Leninist capitalism with no aspirations toward a more democratic form of governance.