Who's Hu?

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Nov. 15, 2002 at 9:29 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 15 (UPI) -- UPI presents a three-part series on China's new leader and where he may take the world's largest nation:

He has risen by speaking softly -- and hardly at all -- but China's new Communist Party chairman Hu Jintao may lead China in dramatic new directions that will shake the world.

As planned, the 59-year-old Hu Friday smoothly succeed veteran President Jiang Zemin as head of the Chinese Communist Party, following the 16th Party Congress in Beijing. Jiang, now in his mid-70s, is expected to seek to remain state president until his current term ends in 2004.

In contrast to the often surprisingly grandstanding Jiang, Hu has remained a man in the shadows as far as Western experts and diplomats are concerned, even after rising to the Number Two post of the world's most populous nation.

In many respects, his attitudes appear to parallel those of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It may be no coincidence that he is also a strong advocate of strategic engagement with Russia.

Hu and Putin are both economic and social policy pragmatists. They are far from being communist ideological true believers. But they also believe that unrestrained free market capitalism can prove destructive for their respective countries. They are also both advocates of centralized authoritarian rule and of creating a strong nationalist identity to hold together their respective vast nations together.

At 59, Hu is 17 years younger than Jiang and represents the so-called "Fourth Generation" of China's leaders rising to take over the reins of power from Jiang's "Third Generation."

His eminence is a recent development. He was appointed vice president in 1998 and was appointed to the Central Military Commission the following year, immediately becoming its vice president.

Jiang and current Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, 74, focused on economic growth through the free market to build prosperity and power. But Hu appears to be primarily focused on building military power, using the powerful platform of the CMC.

Many China watchers believe Hu is a driving force behind the massive Chinese program to acquire arms production capabilities to build more of their own from Russia. He is seen as among the most anti-American of the rising generation of Chinese leaders and is unusual among them in never having visited the United States.

Putin in Russia had spent years in East Germany, watching the West, as a rising officer in the Soviet KGB intelligence service. But Hu had never traveled in Europe or North America before he became vice president of China and Jiang's heir apparent. Unlike earlier generations of Chinese Communist party leaders like former Premier Li Peng, he never studied in the Soviet Union either.

He is used to obeying orders and doing the dirty work of the national leadership. Following the pattern of previous Chinese Communist leaders like founding father Mao Zedong and Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping, Hu has extensive experience China's poverty-stricken, still-underdeveloped rural hinterland. Like Deng, he was exiled to rural regions during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

In Deng's case, his experience of living among the grassroots peasantry led him to abandon the ambitious theories of social engineering and communist ideology through which Mao inflicted decades of suffering, poverty and even famine on the Chinese people.

In Hu's case, his longstanding familiarity with poor regions in the west of China that were left out of the southern and coastal regions free market boom of the 1980s and 1990s seem to have left him with a distrust of putting the same kind of faith in unregulated free market growth that Deng and Zhu did.

That could prove good politics for him in the years ahead. The venerable Premier Zhu has already been long under attack from traditional hardliners led by former Premier Li opposed to continued free market policies. And they are supported by Shanghai-based bankers and industrialists worried that joining the World Trade Organization will unleash a flood of unregulated imports that will threaten their interests.

Now, fears are growing that China's corruption-riddled financial sector could be heading for a new meltdown, far more severe than the southeast Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.

If that happens -- or even if the current economic slowdown and massive social dislocations just fail to improve -- Hu may be able to consolidate his power on a bandwagon of party and popular disillusionment with the free market policies of the past 20 years.

He is no stranger to running repressive policies. He effectively cracked down on nationalist protests in Tibet when he was Communist Party secretary there in 1989. In the post-Tianamen Square era, that experience marked him out as a "sound man" on whom Jiang and the party leadership could rely to prevent future popular protests getting out of hand.

Even by the deliberately faceless standards of the Chinese Communist Party's ruling cadres, Hu attracted remarkably little media attention until well after he became No. 2 leader in the most populous nation on earth. Media profiles usually described him as a "cipher." But these appeared to be, rather, unconscious tributes to his Putin-like ability to hide in plain sight and advance steadily and methodically without alarming his rivals.

Yet clear indications of his policy preferences have indeed emerged. He is profoundly influenced neither by the United States nor Russia. He is a strong nationalist likely to intensify the strong trend already apparent under Jiang to confront the Untied States over Taiwan and to give nationalist concerns priority over purely free market growth ones.

Like Deng, he is concerned about improving the standard of living of poor peasants in the vast hinterland. Unlike Deng, he does not believe unregulated economic growth is the way to do it.

Many Western Sinologists in the past have suggested more sympathetic figures like Vice Premier Wen Jiabao and party personnel director Zeng Qinghong, 63, a Jiang loyalist, as possible future leaders. And in this week's leadership reshuffle, these figures have risen in power and visibility. succeeded

Both of them won places the key Standing Committee of the Politburo. And Wu now becomes the Number Two man in the entire Chinese Communist Party. They will likely enjoy the support of two other old Jiang allies, the current Communist Party secretaries who run the nation's two largest cities, Beijing and Shanghai, on the Standing Committee. If Hu stumbles, this "new Gang of Four" Jiang loyalists, appear to be in prime position to challenge or even oust him.

However, in the past, we have noted in UPI Analysis that Wen's close ties to Premier Zhu and his economic policies will probably make him vulnerable if a financial crisis hits. And neither Wen nor Zeng can match Hu's position as the army's champion and spokesman.

Quietly confident, discreetly aggressive, polite yet chauvinistic, Hu will present a radically different international face for China from the beaming, insecure eagerness to please of Deng or the proper, increasingly assertive but still careful and predictable Jiang.

He has talked softly during his rise to power, but he is unlikely to continue doing so as president of China. In a March 2001 UPI Analysis we predicted, "like Theodore Roosevelt, he intends to carry a big stick on the world stage -- and go far."

That is still the way to bet.

Next: Where will Hu lead China?

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