Hu Jintao: “An iron fist in a velvet glove”?

Short but interesting commentary:

When Hu Jintao became the president of China in 2002, the Western media hoped he would be what Gorbachev was to Russia. Little did they know about Mr. Hu. The breakthrough for Mr. Hu’s public career came when he was named the secretary of the Communist Party in the Tibet region at the time of bloody revolt in 1988. He prevented further friction by enacting martial law. Right after Mr. Hu became the president, he visited the small village of Xibaipo. That’s where Mao Zedong had set up a secret base to prepare for a campaign to go into Beijing. Xibaipo is sacred ground where the Communist Revolution was completed. Mr. Hu is currently working on legislation that would legally allow aggressive military action toward Taiwan.

The issue of North Korean defectors is also a sensitive concern. The Grand National Party lawmakers who held a news conference regarding defectors on Jan. 12 must have underestimated the pride of China. After all, Mr. Hu is a leader whom BBC said has “an iron fist in a velvet glove.”

So, is Hu a saviour or merely a continuation of the way things were? I had really expected another Gorbachev, but at this point I see no reason to harbor such optimism.

The Discussion: 13 Comments

It’s still way too early to tell what kind of leader Hu will turn out to be. Western media has this simplistic view that everything that has happened in China since Hu’s inauguration as CCP general secretary is Hu’s doing even when many of these things are actually contradictory with each other. Some UK media has even listed Hu as one of the world’s top dictators, when in fact Hu is not in position to dictate anything to anybody. Hu has far less control over things in China than what Bush has in the US.

The post of CCP general secretary is largely a ceremonial one. All important decisions are made by the 9 member politburo standing committee and Hu’s vote doesn’t carry any more weight than any of the other 8 members, of which 5 are closely affiliated with Jiang Zemin and 1 is a protege of Li Peng. To draw an analogy to US politics, Hu’s position is more like the minority leader in the house or senate than anything else.

Keep in mind that of the 4 man to head the CCP before Hu Jintao and after Mao, 3 would eventually be removed in disgrace, with Jiang Zemin being the only one able to survive politically until retirement. It’s little wonder that Hu has so far busied himself mostly with consolidating his power and worrying about his own political survival than anything else. It took about 6 or 7 years as head of CCP before Jiang Zemin felt confident enough to really assert himself in running the country, it may take Hu a similarly long time.

January 14, 2005 @ 4:49 pm | Comment

You’re right, it may take a long time. After two years I’m not impressed with what I see, but I’ll give him some more time. It’s safe to say, however, that those of us who expected or hoped to see a Gorbachev-style reformist who would blossom as soon as Jiang’s grip was loosened are so far disappointed.

January 14, 2005 @ 5:32 pm | Comment

Would like to alert you folks of an interesting statistics not available elsewhere:

According to the cited Zogby poll, undisclosed number of ‘majority’ Americans polled see China as the 4th ‘important ally’ of US, only after Britain, Japan and Israel.

Zogby didn’t say the nature of this said alliance or whether they are allied to take away American jobs ๐Ÿ™‚

January 14, 2005 @ 8:01 pm | Comment

Considering the disasterous results that Gorbachev brought to his country and himself, Hu has to be retarded to want to be Gorbachev.

Gorbachev frequently got praise simply because some people like his failure. His political reform was initiated after his economical reform failed miserably. His political reform did not bring the results he wanted to see, either. On the whole, Gorbachev is a tradgic figure.

January 15, 2005 @ 8:56 am | Comment

Gorbachev was in some ways tragic, but he truly brought change to one of the world’s worst systems. He may be a tragic failure, but he was a true reformer, for better or worse.

January 15, 2005 @ 9:06 am | Comment

There is no chance for Hu to be another Gorbachev, so all CCP lovers can rest in peace.

Unlike Hu, Gorbachev had put decent human value and interests of Russia above his own party, the very party under Stalin had executed his wife’s relatives. This is very intellectsia, and very Western.

Hu, on the other hand, won his heir-apparent status by massacring Tibetan people even before the Tiananmen. Deng was smart enough to choose someone with blood in hand to ensure no Gorbachev reform would happen in decades.

January 15, 2005 @ 6:56 pm | Comment


As a matter of fact, I thought you’d have known better about Chinese….

There will never be a Chinese Gorbachev. There might be someone that has just about the same talent and takes the pro-western-democracy position, but such person will never be able to…allow me to repeat, NEVER reach to such high point as the President of China.

Russians are no Chinese, not even close.

January 15, 2005 @ 7:39 pm | Comment

Well, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang managed to occupy those high places, though briefly. But seems now they have a better mechanism to avoid Gorbachev-like emerging from the rank.

I’m not suggesting that Richard is ignorant about China, but I believe he is an idealist. So is Nicolas Kristof. Many open minded people are idealistic, and those cool minded people are more often conservatives. David Brooks maybe a good half way, but he seldom talks about China, if ever.

January 15, 2005 @ 7:49 pm | Comment

Well, you know what? We had always believed here in America that there would never, ever be a reformer in the USSR who could go all the way to the top. Never! Impossible! To believe such a thing would show that a person didn’t understand the machinations of the Politburo and the KGB. And you know what happened? We were all surprised….

Now, the theory that Hu would be a reformer is not my own. This was a theory voiced in many media throughout Asia and the world, that we had another Gorbachev-type leader who would free China from the stranglehold of Jiang. This is not so inconceivable. After all, Deng reversed the evils of the Cultural Revolution, so we know great reformers in China can triumph.

January 15, 2005 @ 7:56 pm | Comment

Looks like those experts didn’t understand Russia, either!

Having to resort to a faceless bureaucrat like Hu for next reformer hopeful proves Deng chose the right guy.

Hu’s daughter married up to a millionaire in Palo Alto, California. Wait for another generation.

January 15, 2005 @ 8:09 pm | Comment

Deng’s pragmatism is commendable, but I don’t think he should get all the credit for reversing the evils of the Cultural Revolution. Communism as an ideology was dead for all intensive purposes after the CR. Nobody believed it in their hearts, including the CCP members themselves. I don’t believe the CCP could have continued in power without massive reforms.

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union never lost its grip on society, even through the Stalinist purges. Khrushchev’s meagre reforms were enough to maintain the party’s monopoly on power for another 40 years.

The CCP actually lost control during the chaos and anarchy of the CR in China, which had morphed into a mass grassroots movement that nobody could control. It should be noted that despite the destructive anarchy of the CR, it represented one of the few moments in Chinese history where the public had the freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and the freedom to rebel against the CCP bureaucracy.

Although the violence and anarchy of the CR was far from the ideals of true democracy, we should not forget that towards the end of the CR, some Red Guards were calling for the overthrow of Mao and the CCP itself before the military was sent in to reimpose control at all levels of society.

January 16, 2005 @ 5:35 pm | Comment

Sigh. People so often mislearn the lessons of history. Gorbachev didn’t bankrupt USSR. He was simply the first leader to openly recognise the economic crisis, and try to undertake reforms to deal with it. His reforms failed to “save” the Soviet Union, but they weren’t responsible for its failure.

January 16, 2005 @ 7:43 pm | Comment


I see where you are coming from, but I was by no means trying to say that a great reformer couldn’t triumph in China. And I have to admit that I went too far as by saying such and such things will never happen. Didn’t have enough time to clearly express my opinions. My apologies.

However, I don’t believe it was shere coincidence that the communist regime collapsed over night in Russia. Gorbachev couldn’t have done it all by himself. No one could. So what then, made it happen so fast?

IMHO, the Russian way of thinking–the aggressiveness inherent to the Russian culture has a very strong hand in it. I’m no racist, and a strong believer of euqality, and I’m by no means trying to judge whether it is good or bad. But when you step back and look at the historical events of the nations, it’s so surprising to see how close the way they make big decisions is to the attitude they take on to their daily lives.

It was no coincidence either, that Japan started her reform successfully so many years earlier than China, who struggled painfully in sweat, tears and blood for so many more years. It wasn’t because nobody had thought of or acted to turn this nation around. Many did and failed. It’s the momentum of such a vast society and the way in which Chinese thought, and for that matter, think.

With that said, if I had to describe the Chinese culture in two words, 中庸 would be the perfect one and it is the most important principle many political bigshot wannabes in China take as their bible. Aggressiveness is the biggest no-no anywhere, especially in the political battlefield. Looking at Hu’s political records, he is the most 中庸 leader among all and that’s probably why he was able to get to this position.

Maybe, very deep within, Hu has some thoughts similar to what Gorbachev had on his mind, but I don’t see why he would make those thoughts public, let alone pushing those thoughts across the board to the senior leaders, not in near future at the very least.

That would be too naive, and daring.

January 17, 2005 @ 9:11 pm | Comment

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