China these days seems to be opting for the cult of ‘non-personality’. How else to explain the ascendancy of the colourless 59-year-old Hu Jintao to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party? Hu is the first General Secretary to start his Party career after the victory of Communist forces back in 1949. This former engineering student comes from the élite Tsinghua University and worked for many years as a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Water Conservancy and Power, a background he shares with former hardline premier Li Peng. Hu is firmly in the camp of those who promote the controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River as well as other major megaprojects. Environmentalists beware.
Hu has risen through the ranks as a Party loyalist by ‘maintaining a high profile, while keeping his head down’, as one wag once described the recipe for success in an entirely different political culture. He joined the Communist Party in his student days in 1964 at the time of the Cultural Revolution. As a model technocrat his political career really began to take off when Deng Xiaoping came to power. This was the era when the bright young career administrator replaced the party zealot as the guiding hand in Chinese political life. Economic reform (without political liberalization) was the order of the day. Hu’s rapid rise to power was based on good political instincts. At 39 he rose to become the youngest member of the Party Central Committee. He was the youngest provincial governor in power, just 42 when he took over in Guizhou in 1985.
His first real loyalty test occurred after he was appointed head of Tibet in 1988. His appointment was greeted with a large demonstration that rocked the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The popular Panchen Lama had lobbied Beijing to put a Tibetan in the post but then died in his monastery under what many regarded as suspicious circumstances. In early March massive demonstrations broke out in Lhasa. Hu’s suppression of these demonstrations resulted in the death of between 40 and 130 Tibetans. Hu convinced Beijing to impose martial law. Hundreds of Tibetans were rounded up with many subjected to ‘sadistic and horrifying’ treatment, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.
The crackdown in Lhasa brought to an end a decade-long policy of a more liberal approach to this Chinese colony. Even more ominously it set the tone for the tough line that was to be applied so rigorously by the Party old guard later that year, starting with the slaughter of peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square and then spreading in a wave of ruthless repression across China. So in some senses Hu was out in front as a hardline representative from the younger generation who rightly saw the way things were heading. Although today Hu sometimes plays his ‘Tibet card’ – presenting himself as a kind of expert on nationalities issues – during his tenure as regional boss he was widely criticized for spending so little time in the region.
Once Hu had proved his loyalty under fire the escalator of advancement speeded up. In 1992 he returned to Beijing as a member of the Politburo’s seven-person Standing Committee taking over responsibility for handling personnel matters and supervising the ideological training of top officials. Hu was in many senses the perfect candidate to be groomed for higher things. He had hardly ever travelled outside of China to be exposed to the corrupting influences of the West. Yet he is reasonably photogenic, cutting a dapper figure in a Western business suit. Official gossip has it that he likes ping pong – and ballroom dancing, with a particular penchant for the fox trot. Apparently he has a photographic memory too. Smart guy – but no Yangtze-swimming Mao. That’s the way it goes these days in a People’s Republic which has made its peace with the ‘free market’ and its polarization of wealth and poverty – conformist, ribbon-cutting technocrats hold sway.
China-watchers debate endlessly the shades of difference in varying bureaucratic tendencies within the leadership in Beijing. Some hold out hope that when Hu escapes from the shadow of his elders in five or maybe ten years he may cast off the authoritarian wolf’s clothing to reveal a reformist sheep. But despite an avowed aversion to corruption the signs don’t look hopeful. China has recently suffered from waves of worker unrest, particularly in a Northeast badly hit by the closure of state factories that can’t keep up with the privatization and deregulation policies. Attempts by the International Labour Organization and various independent labour unions and activists to give Chinese workers more legal power and to allow them to organize self-governing unions have fallen on deaf ears. The fifth modernization – democracy – that the dissident Wei Jingsheng was holding out for doesn’t seem to be on the cards. And Hu Jintao seems well placed to make sure it stays that way.