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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 January 2005, 15:57 GMT
China's leader shows his stripes

By Tim Luard

When Hu Jintao became head of China's ruling Communist Party in late 2002, the question on everyone's lips was "Who is Hu?"

The answer was that no one knew. Even seasoned observers could barely distinguish him from the other leaders who lined up in business suits beside him as the new Standing Committee of the Politburo.

Chinese President Hu Jintao (L) waves to photographers, 19/01/05
Mr Hu is beginning to seem more hardline than he first appeared

Some believed Mr Hu's lack of experience, charisma and factional support meant he would remain firmly under the thumb of the man he was replacing, Jiang Zemin.

Others, pointing to reforms he had reportedly made as head of the Communist Youth Corps, said he was a dark horse who could turn out to be China's Gorbachev - he might do for politics what Mr Jiang and before him Deng Xiaoping had done for the economy, and finally free the world's next superpower from its Leninist straitjacket.

But the pundits seem to have been wrong on both counts.

More than two years on, Mr Hu has proved himself to be more tiger than horse, taking on Mr Jiang and pushing him aside, then showing his true political colours by cracking down on dissent and squaring up fiercely to Taiwan.

Mr Jiang retired from his last post, as head of the army, in September 2004, leaving Mr Hu as highest authority in all three branches of power - party, state and military.

A new campaign against democracy activists and other critics of the government has now made discussion of leadership issues inside China more sensitive than ever.
After the resignation of his rival he is more powerful than before. And apparently he wants to be even more powerful
Liu Junning, Chinese Cultural Research Institute

But one leading liberal intellectual who agreed to talk to the BBC said Mr Hu had already proved himself "more fundamentalistic" than either of his two predecessors.

"He is a very determined communist leader," said Liu Junning of the Chinese Cultural Research Institute.

"After the resignation of his rival he is more powerful than before. And apparently he wants to be even more powerful."

Strengthening his hand

As evidence of this, Mr Liu pointed to a series of recent political and military reshuffles as well as the current clampdown on criticism.

The new appointments - at least one of them involving a former member of the Youth Corps - mean that the so-called "figurehead" is now very much in control, according to Lee Ngok, a Hong Kong-based specialist on China's army.

The latest Defence White Paper, warning of the possible use of force against Taiwan, has further strengthened Mr Hu's position within the all-important military, said Professor Lee.

Mr Hu's muscle-flexing agenda towards Taiwan also includes a new law on secession, laying the ground for a possible invasion of the breakaway province if it goes ahead with moves towards independence.

Nor has he shied away from a fight with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, prompting mass protests by ruling out any early political reform there.
Born in 1942 in Anhui province
Studied engineering at Qinghua university
Worked his way up the party rank and file
As party chief in Tibet, imposed martial law
Said to have photographic memory

Yet when Mr Hu and his new Prime Minister Wen Jiabao came to power, they presented themselves as a kinder and gentler fourth generation of leaders, intent on helping those left behind by the economic reforms.

The two leaders made high-profile trips to poorer areas. When the Sars crisis struck they called for more open reporting by the media and fired senior officials who had been slow to act.

The new government championed "sustainable development" and took steps to cool off the construction fever that had engulfed cities like Shanghai, sending in teams to investigate malpractice by local officials.

The fact that Mr Hu and Mr Wen have done that in the very city where Jiang Zemin has his political powerbase suggests they have begun to take the offensive, according to Li Cheng, professor of government at Hamilton College in the United States.
Chinese policemen restrain a Chinese protester, 06/01/2005
Mr Hu has cracked down on dissidents and protesters

"As a wise politician, Hu Jintao quickly sensed that his mandate was to fix the serious problems that occurred during the Jiang era.

"These include Jiang's favourable policies towards Shanghai and other coastal regions at the expense of the interior, his single-minded goal to increase the GDP without paying attention to social cohesion, and his obsession with patron-client ties," he said.

Mr Hu has tried to reform the workings of the Communist Party to improve its ability to govern.

But his populist leanings and desire for change only go so far.

There has been no movement towards the types of genuine political reform that were discussed in the 1980s but have been taboo ever since - such as separating Party from Government.

Iron fist

Robin Munro, research director at China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labour rights group, said the hand that seemed to be holding out an olive branch to society had come to look more like an iron fist in a velvet glove.

"If anything, the numbers of arrests of dissidents, labour and rural rights activists and Internet free thinkers has been even higher lately than during Jiang Zemin's last years in office," he said.

"Growing corruption and social inequality in China are fuelling escalating levels of social protest, and Hu Jintao and his team seem powerless or unwilling to address these root causes in earnest."

Hu has yet to come up with an ideology to call his own. His personal style is that of a consensus-builder. He is urbane, unassuming, controlled - and as immaculate as ever.

Westerners who thought he might become China's Gorbachev have been left disappointed. But as Li Cheng explained, becoming a Gorbachev figure would imply failure.

"Hu Jintao's mandate, as he perceives it, is not to end the one-party rule or lead to the collapse of the Middle Kingdom, but to save the Chinese Communist Party and to enhance China's influence and power in the ever-changing international environment.

"No one knows whether he could succeed, but his personal power is growing and his vision for the country seems to be shared by many Chinese".


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