Kristof gives Hu Jintao the thumbs down

“Disappointing” is the word that best describes the track record of Hu Jintao since he became general secretary of the CCP in the fall of 2002, according to NY Times columnist and former China correspondent Nicholas Kristof. Aside from some foreign policy skills and a half-hearted ooutreach to China’s rural poor, Hu is actually more of a throwback than a reformer:

More than anyone else, President Hu will determine whether China can continue to surge and whether its rise will be stable and peaceful. Ever since he vaulted into the top ranks of the Communist Party in 1992, there have been vigorous debates about whether he is a closet reformer or a closet hard-liner, but now that he has been the Communist leader for two and a half years, we can form a tentative conclusion: the second camp seems to have been right.

Mr. Hu appears to be an intuitive authoritarian who believes in augmenting the tools of repression, not easing them. Most distressing, Mr. Hu has tugged China backward politically. He has presided over a steady crackdown on dissent, the news media, religion, Internet commentary and think tanks. China now imprisons far more journalists than any other country.

At The New York Times, we’ve seen this crackdown firsthand. Zhao Yan, a colleague who works for the Times bureau in Beijing, was seized last September and tossed into prison. Why? We don’t know for sure, because Mr. Zhao has never been tried and neither his lawyer nor his family members have even been allowed to see him.

Likewise, the bravest and boldest Chinese newspaper used to be Nanfang Dushi Bao. But then the paper reported that the police had beaten a university student to death because he wasn’t carrying his ID. Two staff members were sent to prison last year for long terms, and China’s newspapers are now more docile.

Mr. Hu also has a knack for using old-style propaganda phrases that make him sound like a time capsule from a more Communist past. And Chinese intellectuals were horrified when Mr. Hu issued an internal statement saying that while North Korea had made economic mistakes, it had the right ideas politically.

Still, Mr. Hu’s clampdown has had only a limited effect, because China is now too porous and complex for anybody to control very successfully. Ordinary people are hiring lawyers to enforce their rights, and the rule of law is steadily painting the party leaders into a corner.

“They can’t control everything any more,” said a Chinese with long connections to the country’s leaders. “They’re like a fire brigade, rushing around to put out the fires that burn hottest, and leaving the others alone.”

Interesting that Kristof, like Jerome Keating in the previous post, says China would do well to learn from Taiwan’s example, as well as South Korea’s.

Mr. Hu’s basic problem is that he is trying to achieve stability by keeping the lid sealed tight on the pressure cooker. But the lesson of Taiwan and South Korea is the need to expand freedoms to provide outlets for those pressures. Otherwise, as Ukraine and Indonesia showed, pressure cookers can explode.

So Mr. Hu’s emphasis on short-term stability may ultimately be increasing the risks of major instability in China down the road. And in that sense, the victims of Mr. Hu’s crackdown are not just the individuals sitting in jail, but the entire Chinese people.

Is the pressure cooker at risk of exploding? I’m reading reports on warblogs (which I won’t link to yet because they provide zero proof and contain many gross generalizations – you can find them over at Strategy Page) that demonstrations are becoming a way of life in China as never before. My own sense is that there’s still not nearly enough steam built up to generate an explosion. But Mr. Hu hasn’t helped maters; quite the contrary.

The Discussion: 28 Comments

I can’t see the point why stability is wrong. After coming to America, I especially appreciate how stable the society here is, when comparing to China. I also began to appeciate the words by Deng, “If there is no stability, there is nothing”. Of course, I agree democracy is one way to achieve this. But if Hu can do it without provoking more injustice then before, I’d say he is doing a very good job.

May 17, 2005 @ 10:58 am | Comment

Freedom and democracy are the right of every human being. Sooner or later the Chinese people will demand what is theirs.

May 17, 2005 @ 11:21 am | Comment

“Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty.”

Thomas Jefferson

May 17, 2005 @ 11:23 am | Comment

Good quote. Never heard that one before.

Historically, china has only really erupted in times of economic hardship which is consistent with other nations.

At the moment, I’d agree with Richard’s final point about there not being quite sufficient steam in the pressure cooker to indicate problems in the near future.

China’s people are being conditioned (forcefully sometimes) to keep out of politics generally and focus on making cash. Look at how Beijing reacted to the Hong Kong ‘People’s Protests’ not so long ago—by lecturing about economic stability/improvement and throwing a load of supposed economic benefits Hong Kong’s way.

Even though protests are becoming more common the govt seems to be staying on top of them with draconion measures.

I reckon that only a serious economic downturn where ordinary people really do suffer might lead to serious social unrest.

As economies are guaranteed to move in cycles then future economic downturns are a certainty. The only question is how serious.

Obviously, the banking sector and the shambles that is the chinese stock market would be the most likely to contribute to an economic breakdown.

May 17, 2005 @ 12:08 pm | Comment

“Freedom and democracy are the right of every human being.”

I’m sorry, but I’m a tyrant and I don’t actually believe that.

In any case, popular discontent by the peasantry and rural poor is not a threat to the CCP. Too many diverse causes of discontent and no unifying goal, rebellions by the poor are common, but are only threatening when the policing powers of the state and the government are already weak and on the verge of collapse. A seemingly obvious factor that no one has noticed is that none of the rebellions have advocated against the CCP’s right to power. The issues raised have always been tangetial to that core issue, ranging from industrial pollution, to local corruption, to simple economic issues. Yet there are no signs that malcontent has coalesced to the point that the CCP has been challenged directly. What is dangerous is the threat of urban uprisings by the politically aware classes if they become discontented. The peasantry have no alternative but government by the CCP, the urban population have an inkling of it. The CCP was able to come to power initially by harnessing the political power of China’s peasantry by channeling and redirecting the frustrations of the masses, yet that was over 50 years ago. No force today, excepting for the party, has the societal influence to agitate them into popular revolt. Barring systemic economic collapse, the CCP is going to stay in power.

May 17, 2005 @ 12:33 pm | Comment

But if Hu can do it without provoking more injustice then before, I’d say he is doing a very good job.

Part of Kristof’s point is that he has provoked more injustice, not less, with more censorship and more reporter arrests.

You praise America’s stability. Look carefully at the reason for that stability: personal freedoms, rule of law to prevent abuse, a very large and relatively prosperous middle class… Then you praise Hu’s stability, but I see it as very different from America’s. It’s government-dictated in the form of propaganda, not to mention crackdowns on any sign of unrest, followed by denial the unrest ever existed. That is not the kind of stability any nation should strive for.

May 17, 2005 @ 12:51 pm | Comment

It’s unlikely there will be any rapid dramatic changes in China’s political landscape no matter who’s the leader of the CCP. As it has been pointed out many times before, power in the CCP was decentralized after the Cultural Revolution in order to prevent another single individual from being able to hold too much influence (e.g. Mao) over the party and country. Any changes in the political outlook of the CCP, which is a huge organization with tremendous amount of bureaucratic inertia, will necessarily be slow and at times will even seem like it’s regressing.

It’s also interesting how the criticisms against Hu Jintao are almost exactly the same as those levelled against his predecessors. A lot of the same things were said of Jiang Zemin, Zhao Ziyang, and even Hu Yaobang when they were in power.And yet, there is no doubt China is much more open and free than it was 25 yearsago. Perhaps these people weren’t such horrible authoritarian dictators after all or maybe it’s just pretty irrelevant who’s the general secreatary of the CCP.

(BTW Richard, the top leader of the CCP is the general secretary as the charimanship of the CCP was abolished after the Cultural Revolution).

May 17, 2005 @ 1:35 pm | Comment

Thanks for the correction, HM; I wrote this over breakfast in a rush this morning.

May 17, 2005 @ 2:27 pm | Comment

Perhaps these people weren’t such horrible authoritarian dictators after all

I don’t recall anyone calling them horrible. Authoritarian and dictators, absolutely. Jiang and Hu aren’t my favorite dictators, but history has definitely seen far worse. That said, how history judges them depends on the perspective of the historian. If it’s inm terms of social evolution they may get high marks. If it’s in terms of political reform and strengthening rule of law they’ll be perceived as miserable failures.

May 17, 2005 @ 2:31 pm | Comment

Also keep in mind that South Korea censored the internet in the name of stability. How long was the block on various blogs up in South Korea in the name of keeping a video out of the hands of the people?

And I find it ironic that Kristof at the NYTimes should be lecturing anyone on press docility and relations with the governing.

And how many years did Li Peng and Jiang Zemin and Zeng Qinghong have to fill slots in the system with their folks? Can Hu act on political reform {or get serious about corruption} without fear of retribution from the stacked deck that has benefited from unchallenged authority of cadres and the corruption that ensues?

May 17, 2005 @ 6:22 pm | Comment

The recent anti-china article in US mainstream media is worrisome, from Kaplan’s “how to fight china” to Kagan’s article on washingtonpost, and then Kristof’s writing. I think the main stream media is making preparation for a major confrontation with China. Hopefully I am wrong.

According to my observation, the mainstream media in US is carefully managed. Before any major action, they usually prepare US people psychologically. The media coverage before Iraqi war is a case in point.

In US, common people do not know how to think. Pundits tell them how to think.

May 17, 2005 @ 6:51 pm | Comment

Kristof and Kagan have been singing essentially the same song about China for years. Kristof’s point is far different from Kagan’s and is completely consistent with the way Kristof writes about other oppressive countries. No change. The media aren’t “anti-China,” just anti any government that arrests newspaper reporters and throws them behind bars for decades. That certainly influences the press’ opinions of China, and there’s a simple way the CCP could ameliorate this problem.

May 17, 2005 @ 7:04 pm | Comment

The assertion that China is much freer and more democratic than it was 25 years ago is quite possibly true, but is freer and more democratic than it was 17 years ago, i.e. at the height of Zhao Ziyang’s power after the 13th Party Congress? I would argue China is not. It has regressed from that time, with freedoms severely curtailed by the leaders who opposed, then ousted Zhao, and their handpicked successors Jiang and Hu. Zhao’s political reforms have been stalled and the ‘absolute leadership of the CPC’ bolstered.

May 17, 2005 @ 8:32 pm | Comment

The idealization of Zhao Ziyang in the West is a little too much. Zhao was head of the CCP for a grand total of 2 years and he had little to no impact in terms of political reform in China, most of his policies were just continuations of Hu Yaobang’s. Sure, the few years immediately after the Tiananmen Square movement was more repressive than during Zhao’s short tenure, but there’s no question that China today is more free than back under Zhao’s time. Back then, almost no negative news were ever reported. You almost never hear anything about accidents or disasters in the news, let alone corruption or abuses of power by government officials. People’s lives were still tightly restricted, with everything from travel, marriage, jobs, housing, and even food being heavily controlled and regulated by the government. Thing’s like Jiao Guobiao’s attack on the CCP propaganda department or the Peasant Survey were not even imaginable in those times.

May 17, 2005 @ 10:47 pm | Comment

Jing, the tyrant. You need to ease up a bit and enjoy the fruits of life among those that have freedom and democracy.

A couple of weeks ago I had my journey to the West. Hell of a trip, mostly by bus from Xining to Urumchi and one night train through a desert Lots of poor people, but out there I did not see down and out poverty. People were busy, markets full. I can’t say there would be dissatisfaction there except from the minorities. Oh, I know this is not where most Chinese nationals live, but the area is responding to BJ’s desire to have investments channelled to the poor western provinces.

Interesting thing we came across out there. One Chinese company has adopted 500 or so orphans from about Han and about a dozen minority backgrounds. The company provides for them, the essentials, clothes, food and living quarters, schooling, technical training and also jobs for those that want them and will financially support those that want to go to university. These kids put on a performance of kung fu and gymnastics. All in all, it was very impressive.

I don’t feel an air of massive discontent where I have traveled China. I think it is useless to think the CCP will be ousted anytime soon, unless China suffers a horrendous financial /economic disaster or universal sufferage is allowed, even so, most Chinese will vote for the familiar, most likely CCP candidates.

May 17, 2005 @ 11:32 pm | Comment

Another comment on my trip.

The Mogao Grottos are out on the edge of nowhere, but they are marvelous. For anyone who has time on their stay in China it is a must-see site. I have not been to Egypt or Greece or seen the terra cotta warriors, but Mogao must rank as one with those places.

May 18, 2005 @ 8:38 am | Comment


“personal freedoms, rule of law to prevent abuse, a very large and relatively prosperous middle class… ”

I agreed to all this. However, which one of these points have to do with elections or democracy? Rule of law and properity can all be achieved rather eaier under authoritarian government (Taiwan, South Korea, pre-WarII Japan, or even 16th-18th Britan).

For personal freedoms, Chinese can now move much more freely than before. I agree public speech is still cencored, however, there is not much danger for any private gruntles. And my point is that as long as Hu is working toward that direction, Chinese will have patience. (You know just one hundred years ago, China was still under rule of an Emperor.).


May 18, 2005 @ 12:47 pm | Comment

What makes you certain Hu is moving in this direction? Some say he is more a throwback than a reformer.

May 18, 2005 @ 3:24 pm | Comment

Hui Mao,
you are of course entitled to believe whatever you like about the course of freedom and democracy in the PRC. But your arguments bear more than a little of the stamp of the CPC propaganda department (oops, publicity department) as it seeks to downplay ZZY and the reforms of the 1980s. To start with, one of the most distinctive features of ZZY’s ideas and practices for economic development was that he underscored the need to make political reforms and economic reforms mutually compatible. He understood that sooner or later economic reforms would run up against the flawed and rigid political system – just as has been experienced in the PRC these last few years. In Sept 1986 Zhao set up the CPC Central Committee Unit for Studying Reforms of the Political System (interestingly, Wen Jiabao was a key player) to design and promote political reforms. During the subsequent two years political reform was a key plank Zhao tried to push within the CPC. The report that he gave at the 13th CPC National Congress in October 1987 included his basic blueprint for political reforms – a blueprint that was accepted at that time by the CPC. Even today, Zhao’s report to that congress remains the one genuine and sincere political reform programme unprecedented in CPC history. That it was not implemented as Zhao intended is of course largely due to his early ouster in 1989. That this report was watered down from the one Zhao originally would have liked to present is clear – leftist factions within the CPC bitterly opposed his agenda – and the report went through a long process of revision and redrafting before it was delivered. But Zhao understood that it would never be delivered at all without making compromises. In terms of what he accomplished in those two years he pushed the CPC into adopting a string of measures such as initiating and promoting the competitive election system, moving to close many CPC power organs (including the so-called political and legal affairs committees and the party groups within government departments), placing party organisations under the local authorities’ jurisdiction, and so forth. He moved to promote the business management system, under which director management and workers congresses work in coordination, he respected the media’s independent operations and freedom of creation (including most famously the brief moment in 1989 when the media could report whatever it liked), he initiated the modern civil servant system, he attempted to turn people’s congresses into modern legislatures, he pushed for establishing a transparent government and “political openess”, he made efforts to strenthen all forms of supervision over government. A key recommendation of Zhao and his liberal allies was the separation of party and government — that CPC organs should beat a strategic retreat from government departments, enterprises and universities.

Of course this is a one-sided list of ZZY’s contributions, and he built on the work of Hu Yaobang (also ousted we should recall), but I would be interested in seeing specific examples why you consider him a charlatan rather than blanket assertions such as “he had little to no impact on political reform in China”.

May 18, 2005 @ 3:40 pm | Comment


When did I ever say Zhao Ziyang was a charlatan? Sure, he was progressive and had lots of ideas about political reforms (most of which he inherited from Hu Yaobang), but he was in power for a grand total of 2 years and he never had the opportunity to put much of anything into practice and he had little to no impact on the freedoms enjoyed by the common Chinese.

The point is that just because Zhao had liberal ideas that doesn’t mean there were more freedoms under Zhao. You claimed that China under Zhao in 1988 was more free than it is today and I strongly disagree. I already listed several areas where there are more freedoms today than under Zhao in my previous comment. Can you give some examples of freedoms and rights enjoyed by Chinese people under Zhao that has been revoked since then?

I think there’s way too much emphasis by China watchers in the west on the importance of the party leader, thinking that anything happening in China is a reflection of the leader. So any negative thing happens now, then it’s because Hu Jintao is evil. And since we know Zhao Ziyang is a good guy, therefore everything back under Zhao must have been better than now. Things doesn’t really work like that in reality, there are a lot of forces at play in China’s development and the impact of the party leader, while significant, is rarely the determining factor.

May 18, 2005 @ 8:01 pm | Comment

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say Hu Jintao is evil. Why do you say this?

May 18, 2005 @ 8:25 pm | Comment

People don’t literally use the term “evil” or “horrible” but that’s what’s implied with all the negative descriptions you see in the media.

May 18, 2005 @ 9:06 pm | Comment

I disagree Hui Mao. Saying they find him disappointing, not meeting expectations and sticking to the old course is a far cry from calling him evil. Not very good, more of the same, a failure — that’s what it says to readers. Evil – no, that’s projection on your part.

May 18, 2005 @ 9:29 pm | Comment

Happy to respond Hui Mao. You seem blinded by the assertions of CPC organs and boosters of the CPC leadership that freedom, openness and democracy is better than it was in ZZY’s time. Zhao was the one who implemented village elections on a widespread scale, he promoted the idea of multi-candidate elections for posts right up to party central but this idea was stopped after his ouster and to this day elections are only held at village level in rural areas. Zhao had said that within a decade there should be multi-candidate elections at provincial level. This has not taken place. Transparency of government was a big theme of Zhao’s, linked to greater supervision by the masses, during his time politburo meetings were reported by Xinhua without fail. This practice was abolished by JZM and there was no reporting of any such meetings by state mouthpieces thereafter (although interestingly Hu Jintao appears to be trying to revive the practice). At the 13th party congress, ZZY decided to implement a policy of ‘inner party democracy’ whereby higher party organs would submit to supervision by party congresses and deliver regular work reports to these bodies so their work could be subject to supervision by the broad CPC membership thus eliminating the practice of one-man rule. CPC mouthpieces published lengthy excerpts from these work reports so the general public could see what was going on during ZZY’s time. Since ZZY’s time this practice has been stopped. Regarding cultural freedom, as Bao Tong recalls “After the movie Hibiscus Town was filmed [dealing with the still sensitive topic of the Cultural Revolution], some in the Party approved of it, while others didn’t, causing great conflict of opinion. One secretary asked Zhao for an opinion, to which Zhao replied: “I don’t investigate movies; I watch them. If I have to issue a directive for every movie I watch, I think I’ll stop watching movies. After that, it became the accepted practise that the Standing Committee, Politburo and secretariat no longer concerned themselves with culture or the arts, thus establishing a limit to the Party’s control.” And yet, after 1989 it again became standard practice for the party central to involve itself in the arts, a practice which, despite your assertions, continues to this day. A decision was reached at a party plenum in 1989 that party committees would be removed from organisations and enterprises (this was the apex of ZZY’s achievements in separating party from state and society), but it was soon ‘forgotten’ and we now witness party heavyweights like Zeng Qinghong visiting Guangzhou to stress the importance of strengthening the role of party committees in the new private businesses! Following on from an article by Wan Li, ZZY introduced “scientific and democratic decisionmaking” by encouraging wide consultation outside normal party channels before decisions were made with interested constituencies, experts, etc. This approach was abandoned after 1989, only to be resurrected by HJT recently. As for press freedom, you conveniently forget that in 1989 there were independent journals like the student newspaper The New May Fourth in which Wang Dan published his famous article on the 13th anniversary of the 1976 Tianamen incident. The World Economic Herald in Shanghai published what would today be considered highly inflammatory articles against one party rule. Editor in chief Qin Benli had close ties to ZZY, ties that kept him in print despite the efforts of conservatives while ZZY was around. JZM shut it down after 1989. China hasn’t seen its like since despite the efforts of (now gagged) Southern Weekend and (now closed) Strategy and Management.

The coverage of the student movement in spring 1989 was itself evidence of the press freedom granted by ZZY. CCTV main news broadcast the statements of students such as a student telling Li Peng “the Communist Party has no hope” or students denouncing Chen Xitong to his face on April 30. For approximately two weeks in May 1989, Chinese media was free in a way that it has never been since. Uncensored coverage reached its peak in the days prior to May 20th, when martial law was declared in parts of Beijing. In the words of one Westerner living in Beijing 1987-89: “When I moved to China in 1987, I very soon realized that no amount of background reading and research about the People’s Republic would have properly prepared me for the extraordinary degree of openness and diversity which I encountered wherever I turned in urban Chinese society. During the first months I was amazed when reading the China Daily, when listening to the radio, watching the television and speaking to people. Newspapers published reports of party officials indicted for embezzlement and profiteering. Letters to the editor described the unfair treatment by party members of ordinary people. In general, many commentaries and editorials, both in the newspapers and on television, touched upon the failings of society, and were frank and to the point. I also was taken aback at how well-informed urban residents were about what was happening elsewhere in the world. This was, to a large extent, due to the ever-widening range of subjects which the Chinese press itself was covering and to the increasingly lively contact with foreigners. But the immense flow of information was also a result of the popularity of Voice of America and BBC broadcasts in both Chinese and English – especially among young people – and partly because many Chinese were regularly seeing the so-called “for internal use only” Reference News publications. ” Yang Yulin, a Chinese political scientist who used to work for one of the country’s most liberal research institutes, described the Chinese press of the 1980’s in the following way: “When the reformers in the Party had the upper hand, the press portrayed their more broad-minded views and especially the younger generation pushed the limits of what is acceptable. When the conservatives were in control of the Party’s policies, the press was forced to accept a stricter approach, which was less tolerant of diverse opinions.”

May 18, 2005 @ 9:43 pm | Comment

Dylan …

Impressive … I’ve learned a lot from your posts. May I ask the source of your knowledge / information? Is it mostly personal experience? Book learning? Work in media? Or … ?

May 19, 2005 @ 9:39 am | Comment

I think “disappointment” really is an accurate assessment of most of us Laowai on this blog. After all, many of us are considering living in China (again), and I don’t think we would be doing so if we thought Hu was an evil tyrant. But it’s things like the censorship and repression of debate/journalism that really give me pause. The censorship is not only damaging, it seems so weird and arbitrary (like, why Blogspot?).

I think in terms of relative freedom, what we’ve seen is an increase of the private sphere and a decrease of the public – in other words, it used to be that just about everything was the government’s business, including the most intimate details of one’s private life. But what’s considered private – e.g., none of the government’s business – has increased dramatically in China and continues to do so. So in terms of peoples’ everyday lives, there’s a lot more freedom.

Politically? I’ll leave that to those more knowledgable than I. But it’s a real shame that Hu seems intent on stifling public debate. And to be honest, inexplicable. What’s the fear about? I really don’t get it.

I do agree that China does not give the impression that it is on the verge of chaos and disintegration. But if there is some kind of economic downturn, that could be another story. Which is why some form of democracy and public discussion is so important. These kinds of things serve as a safety valve when times are hard. I think of the Great Depression in the United States – that could have gone very differently, as it did in places like Germany. But the country got through it, and I would argue that the structure of our government and the way it intertwined with the nation’s social structure and character had a lot to do with that.

May 19, 2005 @ 12:19 pm | Comment

For those who want to know a bit more about press freedom (or not) during ZZY’s time try
Many of the comments about how the system works are still entirely appropriate today, which I guess is my point – for all the palaver about progress on freedom and democracy touted about, there has been very little in the last 17 years. A pessimist would say the high point has already been and gone, but I still cling to the various ZZY-esk moves HJT is pulling as hope that one day the conservatives and the Shanghai gang will face the same fate as ZZY.

May 19, 2005 @ 5:04 pm | Comment

what are the real driving forces – II

what are the real driving forces – II

May 20, 2005 @ 8:06 pm | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.