The Man In Jiang's Shadow


To fully understand why Hu Jintao flees the limelight, look no farther than his clan village in Jixi, Anhui province. Slated to become the next president of China, Hu is a prominent name in the flyspeck hamlet of Da Kengkou. But he's not the only native son to make good. The clan boasts a roster of imperial dignitaries, and the ancient meeting hall commemorates two important 16th-century court officials. A remarkably preserved Ming-dynasty structure, the hall features a wooden door-pillar facing the inner courtyard, intricately carved with nine dragons. That's unusual because, in feudal times, the dragon symbolized the emperor, who barred ordinary citizens from displaying the mythical creature. "The Hu family also liked dragons, but they didn't dare show them on the outside of the hall," says a Da Kengkou resident. "So they carved dragons on the inside, visible only to clan members. If the emperor had known about it, he'd have cut off their heads."

Hu Jintao, China's vice president, would surely understand the irony. He hails from China's equivalent of a political dynasty. His forefathers perfected political correctness as a survival technique, and Hu apparently has the same talent. At the tender age of 59, he's poised to run a budding superpower. This fall, at a crucial Communist Party Congress, Hu is expected to succeed Jiang as head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-- so long as the succession doesn't take a dramatic shift. Then, next March, Jiang is expected to step aside from the presidency in favor of the veep. But Hu knows his position is precarious: the slightest misstep, the tiniest whiff of ambition, could easily sabotage his ascent. It's happened many times before. In the late 1980s, first Hu Yaobang and then Zhao Ziyang were favored to succeed Deng Xiaoping. But each fell from the boss's good graces and lost the paramount job.

Hu's got a reputation for painstaking discretion, and it surely will be on display this week when he visits the United States for the first time. He'll meet with President George W. Bush and other U.S. officials, few of whom know much about the new Chinese leader--a rarity given the strategic importance of China. Hu met Bush in Beijing last February, but according to a source familiar with the encounter, the Chinese political heir came across mostly as a blank slate. He kept repeating stock phrases extolling bilateral ties as if he were reciting a mantra whose meaning was: "I-will-not-screw-up-this-important-meeting."

Hu's governing skills are still a mystery. Upon his Hu's elevation to the Politburo in 1992, Deng called him one of the new generation's most promising up-and-comers. The comment cemented Hu's status as the "core of the fourth generation of leaders." Hu's intellect is strong, but his national-administrative and policymaking achievements are slim. And he's got little experience in economics and foreign affairs. His primary asset, says Prof. Murray Scot Tanner, a Sinologist at Western Michigan University, is an ability "to simultaneously impress people on both the right and the left, and to be promoted when his nominal patrons were at each other's throats." Despite such ambiguity--or perhaps because of it--some Chinese now view Hu's rise with great expectations, speculating that he may try to modernize the ruling party and lead his nation toward the taboo realm of genuine political reform.

U.S. officials are especially curious whether Hu views the United States as a future adversary. In the mid-1990s Hu was quoted as telling a secret party meeting that one of Washington's strategic principles was "strangling China's development." And he was the first senior Chinese leader to face the nation on television in the wake of the May 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. At that time, a wooden and clearly jittery Hu endorsed the anti-U.S. protests that erupted in Beijing after the bombing, calling them "legal." But he also urged Chinese youth to return to their books and to their jobs. Hu also played to the nationalistic audience when he was televised embracing a grief-stricken, injured Chinese survivor of the Belgrade blast, who stumbled off a plane in Beijing and collapsed, exclaiming, "Give thanks for the Communist Party!"

By Chinese standards, Hu's political rise has been meteoric. He has "helicoptered" from promotion to promotion, becoming the youngest provincial party leader (in Guizhou, at the age of 42), the only nonmilitary man to be party secretary of Tibet, the youngest member of the key seven-member Politburo standing committee in 1992, and so on. Hu jumped half a generation in terms of promotions, and by now has surpassed all his mentors. Yet, the more people try to deconstruct his political leanings, the more Hu's essence seems to elude. Which is more banal: the fact that Hu's official biography stresses his passion for dancing, or the fact that journalists find themselves reduced to writing about his tango skills?

However hard Hu hides his ambitions, he cannot escape his past. For centuries high-ranking officials have been born and bred in the rural communities of Anhui, traditionally known as Huizhou. Located in the shadow of China's famous scenic Huangshan Mountain, the region is famous for the scholarly "Huizhou culture" that spurred locals to excel in the imperial examinations and win appointments to the imperial court in Beijing.

The most famous of Hu's direct ancestors was Hu Zongxian, who, after defeating Japanese pirates who'd been ravaging Chinese coastal communities, so impressed the Ming-dynasty Emperor Jia Qing that he was promoted a mind-boggling eight imperial grades. At 48 he became the equivalent of Defense minister and tutor to the crown prince. Ultimately, an evil courtier faked the emperor's signature on a decree and had Hu Zongxian thrown into prison, where he died ignominiously in 1565. (A subsequent emperor rehabilitated him posthumously; in 1595 Wan Li memorialized Hu Zongxian as "one of the two most glorious contributors to the Ming dynasty.") The tale of his tragic ancestor has been the stuff of Hu-family bedtime stories for generations. Little wonder Hu Jintao moves cautiously.

Hu has actually never seen his clan meeting hall. Hu was born in Shanghai. His great-grandfather had moved away from the ancestral village of Jixi to pursue his tea business. But Hu's family remains tied to its roots nonetheless. Not far from the village are the tombs of Hu's father and grandfather, a man who loved books but wasn't good at passing exams. Hu's father, a primary-school teacher who died during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, was a stickler for tradition. Although Hu Jintao grew up and went to school in Jiang-su province, his father insisted that Hu junior write down his hometown as Jixi, in Anhui province, according to his cousin Hu Jinxia. "Hu Jintao has never come here, because he's too busy. But he considers himself a native of this village," said an attendant selling tickets last week at the clan meeting hall in Anhui. More and more Chinese tour groups have visited the historic building since Hu's elevation.

Like his ancestors, Hu excelled at book learning. "Whenever he saw adults reading books, he would pick one up and sit on a stool, absorbed," said Hu Jinxia. Despite his rural background, Hu performed so well on his exams that he was admitted to the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, China's equivalent of MIT, to study hydroelectric engineering. In 1964 Hu graduated and for several years worked as a university tutor dealing with "political and ideological issues," essentially indoctrinating students in Marxism. When the chaotic Cultural Revolution erupted in 1966, China's universities shut down. Hu didn't want to sit "idle," according to local media, so he volunteered for work in the hardscrabble hinterland. In 1968 he was transferred to the impoverished province of Gansu to work on a dam project. There his superior was Song Ping, who would later become an influential party elder. A conservative former revolutionary, Song took Hu as his protege, praising him as a "walking map of Gansu" because of Hu's now famous photographic memory.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, Song Ping was promoted to Beijing, where he continued to advance Hu's career. In 1982 he orchestrated Hu's appointment, at 39, as vice secretary of the Communist Youth League (CYL). That was Hu's first national posting. When he became CYL head two years later, he secured a lock on an important power base. In 1985 Hu became party secretary of Guizhou, where some residents still remember him as a dedicated reformer--albeit a discreet one. He instructed journalists in Guizhou to purposely keep him out of the limelight. "He didn't want people to know what he was doing," said Prof. Sebastian Heilmann, a Sinologist at the University of Trier in Germany. "I'd call that tactical intelligence."

Hu's knack for pleasing his masters helped him snare the key post of Tibet party secretary in late 1988, again with Song Ping's help. In Lhasa, Hu almost immediately was confronted with pro-independence Tibetan protests. In March 1989 at least 40 Tibetans were killed in bloody rioting, an omen of the coming Tiananmen bloodshed three months later. Hu liaised with the military during the subsequent crackdown. But Hu spent only 18 months in Tibet; pleading high-altitude sickness, he fled to Beijing to recuperate. Partly for that reason, followers of the exiled Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama, believe Hu is a man they can work with.

Hu is an old hand at rural issues. In all, he spent about 13 years in the poverty-stricken hinterland of Gansu, Guizhou and Tibet. Even today Hu seems at home down on the farm. While visiting Germany last November, he dropped in on the Ortners, a dairy-farming family in Machtlfing, Bavaria, that still has four generations living under one roof. Hu was "fascinated by the high productivity of our farm," said Katharina Ortner. "He told us food production was a matter close to his heart."

That expertise could come in handy. This year, brushfire demonstrations--some of them violent--have been springing up all over China. Farmers are angry about onerous taxes, workers are railing about lost jobs and liberal intellectuals are lobbying--albeit more quietly--for direct, Western-style elections as a way of reforming the Communist Party. Warns a Western diplomat, "There are growing worries about things spreading out of control over the next few years, smack dab in the middle of a leadership change."

The party itself faces a crisis of legitimacy. Designed to promote a "dictatorship of the proletariat," the CCP is now estranged from China's growing ranks of private entrepreneurs, techies and other professionals who comprise the country's vibrant New Economy. By late 2000 China's private enterprises accounted for more than half of industrial output--and most of these new firms have few or no ties to the party. That makes China's current commissars queasy--especially as they contemplate the lessons of the Soviet collapse.

To remain relevant, some intellectuals argue the CCP should simply change its name to the "Chinese Socialist Party." One of these advocates is Cao Siyuan, a former state council official and now a well-known proponent of privatizing the state sector. Such a move would boost confidence among private entrepreneurs and stockholders--and would allow the party to "cast aside its historical baggage," says Cao.

Hu Jintao at least wants to hear how such changes might be wrought. After he became head of the Central Party School, a sort of training camp for senior cadres, it became a hotbed of lively research into such delicate topics as direct elections, political reform and Europe's "bourgeois" social-democratic parties. One popular school of thought--or wishful thinking--speculates that Hu may hope to reform the ossified, Leninist nature of the Communist Party along European lines. At the party school, "there's been a new wind blowing for quite a while," says a foreign scholar who was a guest lectureer there.

On July 1, President Jiang Zemin--under the rubric of something called the Three Represents--declared that the party's doors were open to private entrepreneurs, technical elites and other occupations once denounced as "capitalist." The speech had communist stalwarts choking with rage. A venomous 10,000-character open letter signed by ideologue Deng Liqun accused Jiang of indulging in a "cult of personality." The counterattack was swift. Two vocal left-wing journals, Mainstream and Quest for Truth, were shut down. The party's propaganda machine began promoting Jiang's Three Represents in media and on street posters. Hu reportedly jumped to Jiang's defense as well; the central-party school's newspaper, Study Times, published articles defending the admission of private businessmen into the party. "What you're going to see is a battle for the soul of the party," says a Western diplomat in Beijing.

As that drama plays out, don't expect any radical ideas from Hu Jintao. Last February, when Hu met a group of seven prominent American academics and Sinologists, one of them asked him whether Beijing had plans to expand the direct elections now permitted at the grass-roots-village level. Hu responded by spinning a tale from his own experience: he cited a rural village where the population was split among three clans, each with a different surname. Three candidates--one from each clan--were running for village head. In the end, all the voters simply cast ballots for their clan compatriots, leaving no single candidate with a majority. In China, some citizens are not educated or prepared enough for universal suffrage, he indicated. Then he added, "Even in Florida there were problems with democratic elections" during the U.S. presidential vote.

Hu's old voting story could well have applied to his own clan village of Da Kengkou. There, 90 percent of the 1,000 residents have the same surname, Hu. Last week the talk of the town was an upcoming direct election for village head. Bright red election notices festooned the ancient buildings around the meeting hall. Residents gossiped about which Hu was running.The incumbent, Hu Yijian, is trying for another term, and he explained some of his campaign positions to NEWSWEEK. He vowed to make the management of village affairs "transparent," to add two more transformers to the local electric grid and to offer each resident who enrolls in college a $12 stipend. "I have two or three opponents," he said, laughing modestly, "but I believe I might win." As for the clan's prominent native son, Hu Jintao, the village leader said: "Of course I'm proud of him, and proud to be head of his hometown. I hope he can become a grand leader." If clan history is any gauge, Hu Jintao will strive, discreetly, to fulfill his great expectations.