Hu Jintao’s legacy

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.

The Discussion: 21 Comments

There was optimism when he took power in 2002? My memory is vague, but I don’t think the handling of SARS showed a great display of openness, certainly not at the onset.

To call Hu the worst leader since 1949 is highly unfair, though. For that it would need a couple of Great Leaps, Revolutions and Anti-X campaigns.

October 3, 2012 @ 12:51 am | Comment

You’re right, Mao takes the prize.

There was great optimism when he came to power. One of the first things he did was hold a live, nationwide press conference about SARS, and demoted the national health minister and the mayor of Beijing. A live press conference with international journalists? Absolutely unprecedented. The country totally came clean about SARS and, after three months of blocking the WHO’s inspections opened up and let them in. Bloggers like me at the time (the other ones are all gone now, I’m afraid) wrote of a possible new age of reform. Wen Jiabao appeared to be a true man of the people who was going to initiate dramatic reforms in the countryside. Yeah, it may have only lasted ten minutes, but there was a groundswell of optimism. I lived in Beijing at the time and never saw anything like it.

October 3, 2012 @ 12:57 am | Comment

Given that the tenor of this discussion is and will be heavily influenced by bloviating from Party heavyweights over the relative share of power in the next decade, it’s still a little early to be filling in the blanks on Hu Jintao’s tenure.

October 3, 2012 @ 1:14 am | Comment

Hu is a non-entity. No major policies of any significance have been instituted during his tenure. Jiang, Deng, and maybe even Hua Guofeng can at least be said to have brought about change for the better within China. For Hu, the best that can be said is that the economic reforms of the Deng/Jiang era were not reversed, and that the WTO accession process Jiang had agreed to was not discontinued. On the other side of the balance is the massive growth in spending on internal security and censorship.

All the things that might be pointed to as successes – the Olympics, WTO accession, the space program, the expansion of the military, the Three Gorges Dam etc. – were the result of things begun under the Jiang or even the Deng government. Hu just didn’t stop them.

To be worst though, well, that spot is taken.

And no, Richard. Neither I nor anyone I knew in Nanjing at the time felt any great optimism about the SARS aftermath. Mostly we were just shocked at what happened and much relieved that it did not turn into something much, much worse. The people up in Beijing at the time who spoke optimistically seemed to mostly just be pivoting off the idea that it was the Chinese Chernobyl – something my 22-year-old self was very sceptical about. The same short-lived outbreaks in optimism happened every 1-2 years after that and were always dashed in very short order.

October 3, 2012 @ 3:22 am | Comment

PS – Anyone noticed how the leadership of a country of ~1.4 billion people is about to change and the only thing we expect to see changing in terms of policy is whether the politburo is going to be 9 members or 7 – and even this will not be decided or discussed openly?

October 3, 2012 @ 3:57 am | Comment

I don’t understand the following from the NYTs article: “… the climax of just the second peaceful transfer of power in China’s Communist era.

Hasn’t every transfer of power since 1949 been peaceful? Maybe not without bickering (and this time seems no difference) but no shots fired or anything. Right?

October 3, 2012 @ 8:32 am | Comment

I don’t think the transfer of power to Deng was entirely peaceful, but it wasn’t civil war either. So you may have a point.

FOARP, I think you had to be in Beijing to know what it was like in April 2003. (Just go back in the archives and check my posts from April 1 through the rest of the month for proof.) The city had gone hysterical, food was disappearing from the shelves, no one had any idea what to believe. For those of us there, when the CCP did a complete 180-degree turn and bent over backwards to open up (or at least to appear to open up) it was hard not to feel some hope for the future, it was just so unprecedented. Yeah, it was naive, but under the circumstances I don’t fault my fellow bloggers for feeling we were perhaps at a turning point. (None of them are blogging anymore, I’m afraid.)

October 3, 2012 @ 9:20 am | Comment

About the optimism when Hu came to power, neither was there much feeling in the northeastern part of china, basically after the period of Jiang most people already know what to expect (or rather what not to expect) from the “new” leadership. The era of great ones of Mao and Deng shall never come again, though it would be unfair to blame Hu or anyone who follows his step, the direction of “self regulation” of the party/government should be pretty clear, one of the main target is to keep balance and make sure no more “Mao” or “Deng” could arise (also in the sense that someone as Bo Xilai who is both charismatic and willing to take radical step must be dealt with).

I guess Beijing as being the centre if the actions was (and is) one of the few places in China as being so “sensitive” (and “naive”) in such matters, not much for the rest of China though. (What about the rest of the world?)

October 3, 2012 @ 11:47 am | Comment

I do remember some optimism among friends, especially among those with a rural background, in 2002/2003. In fact, I kept a paper with a 16th National Congress headline, not because I felt it made a big difference, but because I was told that this could well be a historical one. Their enthusiasm didn’t last, but they weren’t hugely disappointed either. To many Chinese people, SARS was just another uncertainty – what seemed of more interest to the people I know was realignment of class relations (without using the word, but income disparities were felt to be an injustice, even by some who had become urban citizens with quite good incomes).

There are too many different standards one could use to judge Hu Jintao’s legacy – the (unknown) public’s views, foreign views, or the CCP’s views. From the latter’s perspective, the world has become safer for the regime, China probably hasn’t become less safe for the regime, and the third factor is too unclear for me to judge: technological innovation. Most Western papers will argue that things could be better in this field if small and medium-sized enterprises had been provided with capital (and market access – that’s not just a problem for foreigners), but if China should prove able to avoid the middle-income trap in the coming years, it will most probably be something to Hu’s and Wen Jiabao’s credit.

Before Western papers assess Hu’s legacy, they’d need to determine what matters to them. In my view, Hu was a bad leader because the regime, under his leadership, has successfully refined the instruments of brainwashing, especially since 2008. At least that’s what Chinese news articles, comment, and commenter threads I’ve read seem to suggest. And yes, the party has made decisions on some fundamental policies. The central committee’s – very comprehensive, in terms of public opinion guidance and social management – “cultural document” of October 2011 reflects Hu’s rather orthodox views, and both outgoing and incoming politbureau members seem to have been able to agree to it.

True: the transition was shakier than before. This is probably the first time that there were no provisions handed down from Deng Xiaoping anymore. One could suggest, just as well, that the CCP stood the post-Deng test – after all, there has been a “peaceful transition”.

In other words: someone has to write the first article about Hu Jintao’s legacy, lest someone else is faster. But Hu’s reign isn’t even over yet. How much influence he’ll retain after the party congress (the end of his party chairmanship) and the ends of his tenures as state and CMC chairman some time later will be guesswork.

October 3, 2012 @ 5:21 pm | Comment

For a fuller picture, re location, my 2002/2003 “mood picture” is from southern China, and mostly includes people who had migrated there from other parts of China, only a few years earlier.

October 3, 2012 @ 5:24 pm | Comment

Richard, I shared the optimism you felt when Hu took the reins of power. People were feeling that the reforms and increasing openness of the Jiang Zemin period (capped, for me, by Jiang pictured in a ten gallon hat at George W Bush’s ranch). Then, not too long after, the severe pre-Olympic internet freedom clampdowns began, got progressively more severe, and regardless of promises of short-term needs, have never been lifted.

I don’t know if Hu really did have a reform and opening up agenda, or if powerful opposing forces made that agenda impossible to execute. Either way, the reduction in freedom of information since Jiang’s time has been one of the greatest disappointments of my life. I only hope that Xi, as a Jiang acolyte, will return China to a path of increasing liberties, tolerance for differing opinions and openness.

October 4, 2012 @ 3:03 am | Comment

I only hope that Xi, as a Jiang acolyte, will return China to a path of increasing liberties, tolerance for differing opinions and openness.

The problem is that we can’t be sure that Jiang/Jiang’s followers are more open to political reform than the others. He did, after all, benefit from the Tiananmen protest crackdown and has done nothing to even hint that it was wrong/regrettable. We also don’t know if he feels the current media restrictions have gone too far – he could have been calling for them.

October 4, 2012 @ 3:20 pm | Comment

We also shouldn’t forget what actually happened during the Jiang years:

1) Massive crack-down on FLG.

2) Massive crack-down in Xinjiang including the Ghulja incident (allegedly hundreds of unarmed civilians gunned down in cold blood).

3) Insurgency in Xinjiang.

4) The third Taiwan straits crisis.

5) The Hainan island crisis.

Basically there was just as much repressive rock n’ roll going on in the PRC during Jiang’s time, it’s just we had some positive indicators to grab onto as evidence of a general direction that China may or may not have been on. There was also more in the way of genuine accomplishment begun during the Jiang era (The Olympics, WTO, the Three Gorges Dam – like it or loath it – etc.).

October 4, 2012 @ 4:50 pm | Comment

I see no hope that things would change for the better when Xi Jinping becomes the President. After a decade of oppression and censorship, there many people who work for the state apparatuses to maintain stability, both on the Internet and in the real world. There a lot more people depend on the continuation of the censorship policy to continue.

October 4, 2012 @ 5:11 pm | Comment

Some mistakes in the previous comment: I see no hope that things would change for the better when Xi Jinping becomes the President. After a decade of oppression and censorship, there many people who work for the state apparatuses to maintain stability, both on the Internet and in the real world. There a lot more people depend on the continuation of the censorship policy.

October 4, 2012 @ 5:12 pm | Comment

“Hope” is, I think, the biggest difference. In the decade following Tiananmen it genuinely seemed that the CCP was on it’s last legs with ‘reform or die’ being a common sentiment. Instead it was under-estimated, and exploited optimism brought about by economic reforms to imply that political reform might follow. It was also in the CCP’s interest to be seen to be on the path to reform in the run-up to the hand-over of Hong Kong.

Now, the CCP is much more secure in its position, having essentially assurred the loyalty of the armed forces and security services through continually increases in spending. Party membership is once again fashionable as a way of getting ahead, representing significant ‘buy-in’ to the CCP brand from the populace (why join if you expect them to be gone in ten years?). Hope for reform is gone.

October 4, 2012 @ 5:26 pm | Comment

“Party membership is once again fashionable as a way of getting ahead, representing significant ‘buy-in’ to the CCP brand from the populace (why join if you expect them to be gone in ten years?).”
I thought CCP membership was just for the guanxi. Even if you do think they’ll be a spent force in 10 years time, you still want to make sure you get all the benefits available now. Don’t forget, you’ll have that US/Aus/NZ/Canadian passport for when the show does actually go tits up….

October 5, 2012 @ 7:28 am | Comment

Jiang Zemin was clearly a piece of shit, and despite our hopes, Hu Jintao is the same.
I agree with Richard’s assessment of the hope that came with the arrival of the Hu-Wen regime, and remember it well from 2002. But in retrospect, looking back on the eventual response to SARS that caused some rare optimism… a press conference with international journalists… is that all we get, after 5000 years of culture? In retrospect, that’s nothing to celebrate- in fact, it just looks silly from the present.
So, let’s not share similarly misplaced hopes for the new gang of douchebags taking power next month.

October 5, 2012 @ 3:23 pm | Comment

@KevinC – Jiang/Hu/Wen are all part of the same apparatus, and given the influence that Jiang is still supposed to have over Chinese politics despite not being in the Politburo. Perhaps it’s time we dropped the idea of any kind of generational transfer in these hand-overs – it’s really the same douchebags who are going to be in power.

No need to bring the ‘5000 years’ bit into this, the present system of government dates back to the 1982 constitution and has only been in place since then. Hu/Wen are the only paring to have actually fulfilled a ten-year term together in that time. Jiang had two premiers during his term, with Li Peng getting swapped out for Zhu Rongji at the half-way mark. Of Deng’s premiers, Zhao Ziyang left his post as premier in 1987 when he was promoted to CCP General Secretary, with Li Peng serving out the rest of Zhao’s term. Of course Deng himself never actually occupied any of the highest constitutional spots, instead occupying the extra-constitutional postion of “Paramount Leader”, a position which is now assumed to be conferred by holding the presidency of China, the CCP General Secretary’s position, and the Chair of the Central Military Commission, although this may not be the case.

In the light of the above I am tempted to ask – has Hu Jintao actually been paramount leader during the last ten years, or has Jiang Zemin still held a degree of effective control over that post? Who actually rules China?

In many ways the past ten years have been a typical ‘second term’ for the Jiang administration, with the main emphasis being given to finishing what was begun in the 90’s. In contrast to what you would expect, Hu/Wen did not introduce any new major policies on assuming their positions, nor have they pushed China in a major new direction. The only difference most people can perceive between Hu/Wen and the Jiang administration is the rather greater emphasis given to security and censorship since 2008. It is true that some Jiang acolytes have been brought up on corruption charges, but if there was a contest between a Hu/Wen grouping and a Jiang clique, a simple look at the prospective new politburo members should tell you who won it.

October 5, 2012 @ 4:15 pm | Comment

I agree with FOARP in that Hu-Wen regime is nothing but Jiang clique’s puppet. As such, the entire 30 years of “reform” can be identified as Deng’s age and Jiang’s, the transition is around 1997, the symbolic boundary is Jiang’s speech given in May 1997, right after Deng’s pass away in February. Jiang’s “three represents” can be further simplified as only one, that is, representing money — which is the root issue of all the problems that China is now suffering. Jiang’s age is mark with gradually merging China’s system into Taiwan’s. There is nothing new there that can be even called as “reform” but totally reverses everything of Deng’s age and all that started from 1949, even the abolished “lift time governingship” was resumed under “core-leadership” name. Jiang disguises his real goal with Deng’s reform though there is nothing in his goal is even nearly close to Deng’s.

October 26, 2012 @ 3:38 am | Comment

Hey Kevinc, I like your straight forward comment: “Jiang Zemin was clearly a piece of shit, and despite our hopes, Hu Jintao is the same.” He was, is and will be a shit all his life.

October 26, 2012 @ 3:53 am | Comment

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