Will he be remembered as one of China’s worst leaders ever? Some think so.
After nearly a year in which planning for the succession has been upset by an extraordinary string of scandals, the leaders and elders have finally agreed on Nov. 8 as the date to begin the 18th Party Congress, the climax of just the second peaceful transfer of power in China’s Communist era. Much of the back-and-forth over the succession, which officials have kept behind a curtain of secrecy, has involved horse-trading over leadership positions between a faction led by President Hu Jintao and one loyal to his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.
In recent negotiations, Mr. Jiang and his allies, who include Xi Jinping, the designated heir to Mr. Hu, appear to have had the upper hand, several political insiders said. Mr. Jiang’s attendance at a concert on Sept. 22 was interpreted by some as a signal that he was still a force in the game of imperial politics.
One blow to Mr. Hu this summer was the quiet unfolding of a scandal involving a powerful politician, Ling Jihua, who is Mr. Hu’s fixer. Now another stress point is becoming evident: Mr. Hu appears on the defensive over his legacy because of growing criticism that policies enacted during his decade-long tenure were responsible for the excessive growth of the security forces and also stalled an overhaul of the Chinese economy that is needed to maintain its dynamism.
“Right now, I think Hu feels very worried because a lot of people both inside and outside the party have been criticizing him,” said a party intellectual with ties to the leadership. “Some say he’s the worst leader China has had since 1949. Conflicts in society have intensified; monopolistic and antimarket tendencies in the economy seem to have intensified; and there’s been no real progress on reform.”
He has my vote. I’ll never forget the optimism I felt when he took power, right at the time when the government, probably against its will, came totally clean on SARS and seemed to be ushering in a new spirit of openness. How disappointed we all were just a few months later when Internet censorship became more aggressive than ever and the promises of reform melted away. He had the bad luck to suffer a series of catastrophes over the past few months that drowned out all other news about China, and the name Bo Xilai will always be pinned to his own. A sad end to what began as a hopeful new period of reform, but I can’t say he doesn’t deserve it.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.