Apples and mandarin oranges

If a trend in economic liberalization is leading China into its rightful place as a major world power, the antedated nature of its political process is doing nothing to ensure the competent – not to mention popular – leadership of said power. Hu Jintao, the newly appointed successor to Jiang Zemin as General Secretary of the Communist Party in China, is nothing if not a symbol of the party’s staunch resistance to change.

For all practical purposes, Hu was installed as the man to take up Jiang’s gauntlet when he was appointed to the Politburo’s Standing Committee in 1992 – the only member of the committee under 50 at the time. A career bureaucrat “whose. . .record of achievement is thin and whose true views about most things are a Chinese puzzle” (The Economist, Nov. 9), Hu is a product of Xiaoping influence, Deng having been primarily responsible for Hu’s entrance into the Politburo.

In fact, Hu has dedicated the last ten years expressly to the task of proving to the powers that be that he is the perfect party politician, not one who would allow a commitment to modernization overshadow his aim of retaining the Communist political monopoly. One can’t blame Hu, however: this is the customary procedure for any aspiring Chinese head of state, inasmuch as flattery and favoritism still outweigh talent and qualifications as “virtues” in the halls of the Politburo.

Hu’s opportunism and finely crafted public image make it difficult to determine exactly what path he will adopt as China’s ruler. In the past, Hu has never formally deviated from the party line, often reading his public addresses verbatim.

However, his administrative experience sends mixed messages. He has been a provincial leader in both the liberal Guizhou province and in Tibet, where he used force to quell a 1989 uprising of Dalai Lama supporters. It is notable, however, that he was first appointed to the Communist Party Central Committee, at the age of 39, by General Secretary Hu Yaobang, who had a reputation for being an outspoken liberal. Indeed, many believe Hu [Jintao] will prove to be something of a reformer after he has consolidated his power and settled into his new post.

This writer is a bit more skeptical. For one, Hu has really no incentive to break from party ranks in even the most trivial respects. Jiang demonstrated that China can, at least in the short term, exploit the benefits deriving from limited liberalization of markets and world trade while still preserving rigid Politburo control. Moreover, Jiang will continue to exercise a fair amount of control over policy, officially as chairman of the party’s Central Military Committee, and unofficially as a backstage puppeteer.

The bottom line is Hu, even in the unlikely event that he should turn out to be a liberal at heart, will find he has very little room to operate independently. Although there has been a great deal of turnover in leading councils over the last week, including six new faces on the Politburo’s powerful Standing Committee, there is little reason to believe Hu will have an easy time building consensus. Most of the new Standing Committee members have pledged allegiance to Jiang and other established Chinese bosses, and owe their comfort and standing to the status quo.

In short, it is hard to believe there will be any appreciable differences between Hu and Jiang, which isn’t the worst thing imaginable (free trade should continue to flourish), but democratic overtures aren’t likely to be forthcoming.