Washington Post



Washington's Wooing Hu -- But Here's What Matters

By James Mann
Sunday, April 28, 2002;

Over the next few days, we will witness an old ritual: Washington's avid courtship of a man who, it is presumed, will become the top leader of a powerful nation.

China's vice president, Hu Jintao, who is in line to take over from President Jiang Zemin next fall as the highest-ranking leader of the Chinese Communist Party, is coming to town. He will meet with President Bush in the White House. Vice President Cheney will serve as Hu's official host. Hu will no doubt be far more restrained than Jiang (who often likes to recite a few lines of the Gettysburg Address for American audiences). Yet diplomats, intelligence officials and China experts will scrutinize Hu's every word, however colorless, and his every facial expression, however impassive. The foreign-policy elites will rush to a dinner in Hu's honor, and American corporate leaders will line up for the chance to hand a business card to Hu, or even to an assistant to Hu's assistant.

This intense focus on Hu's personality doesn't make sense. How much can any individual really make a difference within the ruling Chinese Communist Party? Why do we so often make the mistake of over-personalizing Chinese politics, exaggerating the importance of a single individual while underestimating the power and tenacity of other party leaders? Is America about to get China wrong again?

The point is not that Hu Jintao is uninteresting. At the (for China) tender age of 59, he has risen faster than anyone else in his country has for decades. More remarkably, Hu has accomplished this feat without any strong, consistent patron among China's top leaders. While Hu got a huge boost from Deng Xiaoping, who promoted him to the Politburo Standing Committee in 1992, his mentor during his meteoric rise was Song Ping, a weighty but relatively obscure figure who for many years led China's central planning apparatus and the Communist Party's organization department.

Hu seems to be, above all, a party organization man and a creature of Beijing. It is true that he spent many years in grass-roots China. During the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to the countryside in Gansu province, where he emerged as a party youth leader. Later, he served as provincial party secretary in impoverished Guizhou and in Tibet, and helped coordinate a military crackdown to repress Tibetan unrest in 1989. These experiences give him a greater familiarity with China's poorer areas than Jiang, China's current leader, who, for most of his career, shuttled between Beijing and Shanghai.

Yet there is no sign that these provincial assignments represented anything other than obligatory way stations in Hu's ascent.For the last two years of his tenure as Tibetan party secretary, Hu lived in Beijing, complaining that altitude sickness prevented him from spending too much time in Tibet itself. For more than a decade since, he has worked in the top organs of the Communist Party in Beijing -- at the Organization Department, as head of the Central Party School and as the Politburo Standing Committee member responsible for personnel and propaganda.

In short, there is virtually nothing in Hu's background that suggests personal creativity, dynamism or a penchant for challenging the interests and perquisites of the ruling elite from which he rose. If he fosters any initiatives, they will likely be ones his fellow leaders already support. Nonetheless, Washington will probably attribute to Hu Jintao far greater power than he will actually possess.

Over the past three decades, America's top officials have repeatedly gone astray in their assumptions about China's leaders. Sometimes the misreadings have been comically off the mark. Today historians date the Cultural Revolution as lasting from 1966 to 1976, but at the time of President Nixon's groundbreaking trip to China in 1972, his administration believed that the Cultural Revolution was over. A couple of years later, then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger disparaged Deng as "that nasty little man" after Deng began standing in for the ailing Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, whom Kissinger revered.

Once Deng became China's top leader, the prevailing view in Washington was that he had the country utterly in his grip. That was largely true when it came to foreign policy, but it wasn't true of China's domestic politics, where Deng had to contend with a maelstrom of competing forces. Obsessed from afar with the persona of Deng, American leaders overlooked the strength of the growing movement for political reform under Communist Party general secretaries Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, as well as the powerful resistance to change among Communist Party elders. Result: The Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989 and the ensuing crackdown came as a surprise to U.S. officials. When President George H.W. Bush tried to telephone Deng in the midst of the upheavals, Deng wouldn't take the call.

After party elders installed Jiang Zemin as the new Communist Party secretary in mid-1989, the common assumption in Washington was that Jiang wouldn't hold the job for long. "The current discredited regime is clearly a transitional one," wroteWinston Lord, who had recently stepped down as U.S. ambassador to China. Wrong again. China's post-Tiananmen leadership successfully repressed dissent and was buoyed by China's phenomenal economic growth of the early 1990s.

Eventually, as Jiang began to foster a self-glorifying personality cult, the Clinton administration swung back the other way. It decided to do business with Jiang and, in the process, overestimated his personal power. Before and during President Clinton's visit to Beijing in 1998, Jiang suggested a willingness to foster far-reaching changes, including tolerance of China's democratic movement, talks with the Dalai Lama and tighter controls on exports of missile technology. Clinton reciprocated by moving closer to China's position on Taiwan than America ever had. As it turned out, Jiang (even if he was sincere) couldn't deliver; the brief, purported political opening died.

What lessons can be gleaned from this history? In judging Hu Jintao, Americans should beware of three common mistakes. First, by concentrating on the personality of China's top leader, we ignore the collective nature of the Communist Party leadership. The Central Committee, Politburo and Standing Committee are the organs that set China's political direction. Why do we understate the role of these institutions? On the one hand, American liberals seem reluctant to draw attention to them and thus underscore that China is still run by a party with a traditional Leninist bent. On the other hand, some American conservatives avoid focusing on China's collective leadership, because doing so makes it harder to brand China's top leader a "dictator." Hu will not be a lone dictator, any more than Jiang Zemin was. He will represent, and answer to, the rest of the Communist Party's leadership.

Second, U.S. officials and China experts tend to overlook the powerful behind-the-scenes role played by party elders and army leaders, even after they have left their formal posts. Party elders played key roles in the events leading up to the Tiananmen Square crackdown and at other junctures, and chances are they will again in the future. How much will the New Elders -- including President Jiang, Premier Zhu Rongji and former premier Li Peng -- throw their weight around, and how much latitude will they allow Hu Jintao? Anyone who pretends to know is lying.

Third, America's China specialists pay too much attention to elite politics in China and not enough to what's happening in the society at large. They misjudged China in the 1980s because they underestimated the attractions of Westernization among young Chinese and the counter-reaction this was producing among the party's old guard. What counts now for China's new Communist Party leadership, including Hu Jintao, is whether it will be able to cope with China's own societal sources of potential instability, including labor unrest, rural protests and the resentments of the hundreds of millions of Chinese (pensioners, employees of state-owned factories) who have not profited from the economic boom of the 1990s.

Hu Jintao would be worthy of America's obsessive focus if he were a "Chinese Gorbachev" -- a leader who had emerged from within the Communist Party with a desire to challenge and shake up the ruling elites and open up a closed system. But there is little chance of that. The Chinese Communist Party has had more than a decade to reflect on the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the lesson it has drawn is the importance of preventing the emergence of a Gorbachev. We can be sure that the leaders it chooses will be well vetted and unlikely to spring surprises.

From the perspective of the Chinese Communist Party, one of the principal accomplishments of Jiang Zemin is that he has avoided intense divisions within the top ranks of the party leadership like those that led to political convulsions under both Mao and Deng. Jiang has been individually weaker than his predecessors, but he has held the Communist Party together better than they did. In the process, he has preserved the party's domination over all of Chinese political life during an era of rapid economic and social change. We can expect that Hu Jintao, too, will put the highest priority on political stability and the interests of his party. He may foster some reforms; one day he may even take the symbolic step of renaming the Chinese Communist Party. But he is not likely to challenge the party's core interests or its monopoly on power.

During Hu's trip, we can expect him to say little that is new or surprising. A Communist Party Congress is coming up this fall, the first in five years. Hu Jintao doesn't want to do anything that might run afoul of the party faithful who will anoint him.

Only when we stop personalizing China's leadership will we fully understand the country and how it is run. Keeping Hu Jintao's visit in perspective would be a good place to start.

James Mann, a former Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, is senior writer-in-residence at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of "About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship With China." (Knopf)