| Hu Jintao (right) with President Jiang Zemin. (AFP)
Beijing, Nov. 3: The first chill winds of winter gust across Tiananmen Square as a gang of workers begin erecting plastic palm trees along its flanks in preparation for the start of this week’s Communist Party congress.
For the 2,000 delegates who are beginning to arrive in Beijing, the incongruity of fake tropical flora on the edge of the north China plain will be nothing compared with the latest chapter in the long-running enigma in Chinese politics: the fate of Hu Jintao, the man destined to be anointed the country’s next leader.
As heir apparent since 1992 and vice-president since 1998, Hu, 59, has remained an elusive figure, little known by the public, who enjoys “dancing alone” at parties, according to an official biographer. He is certain to emerge as general secretary of the Communist Party from the five-yearly congress that opens on Friday — the first step towards being appointed President at next spring’s parliamentary session.
This is when President Jiang Zemin, having served two terms in office, must step down. Jiang, however, has done his utmost to ensure that his influence over the party continues after he leaves office by packing the politburo with his henchmen — in particular Zeng Qinghong, who acts as his “enforcer”.
As powerful as Jiang will remain, he has been unable to derail the accession of Hu, who was picked out by Deng Xiaoping with the words “Hu is not bad” in 1992. Jiang hopes that, with Hu’s and Zeng’s factions at war with each other, he will be able to play the Grand Old Man of Chinese politics. If he is to be an effective leader, Hu will have to move out of Jiang’s shadow and start answering questions about his background and what he stands for.
In the town where he grew up, in the poor central province of Anhui, Liu Bingxia, 88, his wizened great-aunt who raised the engineer-turned-apparatchik after his mother died when he was five, is unable to provide much enlightenment.
“His character was good when he was young,” says Liu. “Now I don’t know. People change year by year.”
In the decade since Hu last paid her a flying visit, when he was governor of Tibet, she has suffered an unusual degree of hardship for a relative of a high official, but has not elicited the slightest expression of concern from him.
She was evicted from the family home as it was condemned for demolition to make way for a bank. She tried to argue that the vice-president would be displeased. When the bankers contacted his office, Hu is reported to have replied: “If you want to knock it down, knock it down. The house is not mine — it’s hers.”
The dank little flat she received in compensation has no cooker, refrigerator or television. Still, she has hope that her great-nephew will one day return to visit. “My circumstance is not good,” she says. “He doesn’t know because he doesn’t visit, but he knows I’m all alone.”
Hu, aware that the designated successor to the leader is the most precarious figure in Chinese politics — both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping purged two of their putative heirs — has concentrated his energies on managing party institutions and formulating ideology.
Only once has he been seen to act decisively. In Tibet, he declared martial law in 1989 — a move that resulted in the massacre of thousands of monks demonstrating for independence. Despite his record in Tibet, he is seen as a closet reformer who recognises that the ruling party cannot indefinitely stonewall demands to match economic modernisation with political change.
Western diplomats who have dealt with Hu say that although he is sympathetic to reforms within the party, such as punishing abuses of power and promoting younger leaders, he remains an adamant opponent of popular democracy.
“Hu recognises that the party must make arrangements that emphasise freedom and opportunity, otherwise we cannot sustain economic growth,” said one official from the more liberal wing of the party. “But he’s adamant that reforms must come with stability and must be suitable to China’s situation.”
As the head of the Communist Party’s Central School, Hu has encouraged research into democratic reforms undertaken by eastern European communists and liberal democratic parties of the West. Lectures on rival political philosophies and systems, ranging from ancient Greece to Tony Blair’s reforms of the Labour Party, are mandatory for rising stars of the bureaucracy during short courses at the school.
The vice-president is as little known abroad as he is at home. In the past year, foreign governments have courted him, seeking to secure influence in a post-Jiang government. A year ago, he toured Britain, and in April he visited the United States. “He barely left an impression on the seat, never mind the President,” said a US diplomat.
There are indications that Hu will attempt to portray himself and the China he leads as more fiercely independent than under his predecessor. His close aides have implicitly criticised President Jiang as being slavishly pro-American, although his tenure has seen a series of confrontations with Washington, including the riots after China’s Belgrade embassy was bombed by Nato and last year’s spy plane stand-off. As he showed during last month’s trip to President George Bush’s ranch in Texas, Jiang constantly seeks the approval of US leaders.