The week-long visit to the United States by Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao in late April-early May 2002 was a major step toward Hu’s expected appointment as successor to Jiang Zemin as Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party at that party’s 16th Congress this October. Hu is then expected to follow Jiang as President of the People’s Republic of China at a National People’s Congress meeting in Spring 2003.
Demonstration of ability to manage China’s vital relation with the United States is essential for any Chinese leader, and in this regard Hu demonstrated considerable skill during his recent visit. Jiang Zemin will probably stay on for a number of years as ade facto paramount leader and a de jure head of the Central Military Commission and, therefore, will remain the final decision maker regarding China’s policies toward the United States even after Hu’s double-accessions. Yet Hu’s introduction to individuals at the highest levels of power in Washington, is a major step forward for Hu. It also signals a growing role for Hu in management of PRC-U.S. relations.
Hu’s background suggests that he will be very much a development-oriented leader. Born in 1942, probably in southern Jiangsu but perhaps in Shanghai, Hu is now 59 years old. That makes him one of the youngest top leaders the PRC has ever had. Hu’s family had been involved in the tea trade in Shanghai, but fled Shanghai as Japanese occupation tightened over that city. As a young boy, Hu was raised in a prosperous region of Jiangsu. In 1959 he entered Qinghua University in Beijing to major in river hydroelectric generation. Hu excelled politically and academically at Qinghua, China’s premier engineering university. He came to the attention of then Qinghua president Jiang Nanxiang, a man with close ties to top CCP leaders. Jiang later moved on to higher positions and helped Hu along at several key points in his career. The significance of this experience is that Hu 1) has a solid technocratic background, and 2) is a member in good standing of the politically well-connected Qinghua fraternity among the Chinese elite.
Hu remained at Qinghua during the turbulent days of the Cultural Revolution, and was criticized and denounced in one of the numerous “struggle campaigns” of that period. In 1968 Hu was “sent to the countryside” as Mao brought the Cultural Revolution to a close. Hu was assigned to work on a hydroelectric plant in remote and poverty-sticken Gansu province. He remained in Gansu for 13 years, one of three long stints in China’s poorest regions. By 1975 Hu had demonstrated his skill at both engineering and party organizational work, and was promoted to work on the Gansu Provincial Construction Commission in the provincial capital Lanzhou. The chairman of Gansu province was then Song Ping who happened to be one of Deng Xiaoping’s key supporters. Deng was then locked in a bitter struggle with the Maoists over succession to Mao Zedong. Hu won the patronage of and proved his worth to Song Ping, one of Deng’s closest supporters.
In 1981 Song Ping was promoted to Beijing. Hu followed Song three years later, and in 1984 became head of the Communist Youth League Secretariat. Hu was then 42 years old. The Communist Youth League was then a hot-bed of struggle over “spiritual pollution” — a broad code word for Western influences — and Hu fell afoul of several neo-conservative “princelings” (high ranking cadre who are the children of high ranking cadre of the older generation) by trying to restrict that campaign. Hu Jintao had by this point become aligned with Hu Yaobang, then the CCP’s reform-minded Secretary General and himself former-head of the Communist Youth League. Hu Yaobang advised Hu Jintao (the two Hu’s are not relatives, although their “xing” or family name is the same) to return to the provinces to avoid being consumed by the bitter factional struggles of Beijing. Song Ping agreed, and Hu Jintao was appointed CCP head in Guizhou province in 1985.
Guizhou, located in China’s southwest, is another of China’s poorest provinces. As had been the case in Gansu, Hu quickly established a reputation as a leader who went to the grass-roots, and was sincerely concerned with the welfare of the people. During his first months in Guizhou he visited villages, cities, factories, mines, and schools in twelve counties of the province. Vigorous market-oriented reforms followed.
In 1989 Hu was transferred to Tibet to serve as Party chief. While in Tibet Hu presided over the stern and forceful implementation of martial law. Tibetan opposition was crushed. Hu unquestionably bears considerable responsibility for this. Reportedly it was Hu’s disregard of Zhao Ziyang’s early 1989 advice to avoid a crack-down in Tibet — a disregard that led Hu to work with the PLA command in Tibet about the modalities of a crack-down — that brought Hu to Deng Xiaoping’s attention. Here was a man, Deng concluded, who could make up his own mind and not be entirely submissive to authority.
A couple of points need to be made about Hu’s role in the Tibet crack-down of 1989. First, the real powers-that-be in Tibet were the PLA commanders, and those men have their own ideas about how to handle the Tibetans — thinking not too dissimilar from that of William Tecumseh Sherman regarding the Sioux in the 1870s. Second, Hu Jintao was the first CCP chief of Tibet without a military background ever assigned to Tibet. Had he shown “weakness” he would have summarily been pushed aside. There would almost certainly have been a crack-down in Tibet with or without Hu. Finally, had Hu followed Zhao Ziyang’s advice and not worked with the PLA to implement a crack-down, he would not today be Jiang Zemin’s heir-apparent.
In 1992, back in Beijing now, Hu reportedly played a key role in working out the deal between Jiang Zemin and Deng Xiaoping according to which Jiang became Deng’s heir-apparent, but Deng Xiaoping’s line of opening and reform was enshrined as party doctrine. In October 1992 Hu entered the Political Bureau, being promoted over scores of more senior heavy-weights in the party. This rapid rise was testament both to Hu’s political acumen and his assembly of prominent backers. Hu had made himself useful to a number of very powerful men. In 1992 Hu was put in charge of the Party’s personnel and organizational departments, a position which gave him power to build begin building his own network of clients. Finally, in 1998, Hu was made vice president.
It would be hard to find a leader of the PRC whose biography was more acceptable from the American point of view. Hu is a self-made-man who worked his way up by demonstrating skill and ability. Hu is not a “princeling” who owes his prominence to well-connected parents. Hu is a technocrat, an engineer. Hu has decades of experience helping to pull some of the poorest regions of China out of poverty. His career was within and shaped by the apparatus of the Chinese Communist Party, but Hu was not a propagandist, a policeman, or a soldier. Hu suffered hardship (in Gansu, Guizhou), yet during that hardship demonstrated concern for the economic betterment of the people under his tutelage. Hu’s origin in a family of Shanghai tea merchants, his training as an engineer, and his decades of experience working in China’s poorest provinces, his association with the CCP’s reformers from Song Ping, to Hu Yaobang, to Deng Xiaoping, suggest an individual who will continue to lead China toward deeper involvement in the global economy. The United States, and China, could do far worse than Hu Jintao. This was certainly one important reason why he was given such a cordial welcome during his recent visit to the United States.