Reviewed by RFA Executive Editor Dan Southerland
In late 2003, China’s new president Hu Jintao made a speech celebrating the late Mao Zedong. He said not a word about Mao’s disastrous mistakes.
According to author Willy Lam, this was a wake-up call for many Chinese intellectuals, who until then had regarded Hu as a reformer who would eventually open up China’s political system.
“Given that even official party documents had faulted Mao for having made serious mistakes during the Cultural Revolution…a number of intellectuals in Beijing thought that Hu had gone too far,” writes Lam in Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era .
Since President Hu took control of China more than three years ago, China watchers have been debating his effectiveness, his ideological leanings, and his grip on power.
Although Hu’s staying power is now proven, his effectiveness is still up for debate. And many are still puzzled over his ideology. What are his deepest convictions? How does his thinking compare with that of previous Chinese leaders?
Apart from Xinjiang party boss Wang Lequan, Hu and Wen were the only two cadres in the 25-member Politburo with substantial experience in the western provinces.
Lam resists indulging in wishful thinking about Hu. Instead, he has gathered abundant evidence that Hu is a cautious conservative unlikely to embark on the political reforms that Lam thinks are essential to China’s long-term stability.
President Hu, Lam says, “does not believe that there is anything intrinsically wrong” with one-party, authoritarian rule.
Although Marxism has been discredited around the world, Hu still believes that it is a scientific system. And, in Lam’s view, Hu is more a disciple of Mao than of the pragmatic Deng Xiaoping.
In foreign policy, Lam says, Hu has secured closer relations with Russia and tilted away from the United States.
To Lam it seems evident that Hu has been following ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin’s approach to muzzling dissent.
After the “color revolutions” in countries such as Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the first half of 2005, Hu “repeatedly warned” of the danger of dissident groups and nongovernmental organizations working with “anti-China forces abroad” to undermine communist party rule.
Under Hu, Beijing has tightened its grip over Tibet and Xinjiang. Hu’s decision to elevate a political ally, Wang Lequan, party secretary of Xinjiang, to the Politburo, “seems to attest to the leadership’s desire to maintain ironclad control over the resource-rich and trouble-prone autonomous region.”
The high point for Hu among “liberal” intellectuals inside and outside the party came in the fall of 2002 when he fired China’s health minister for covering up the SARS epidemic and seemed to promise more transparency regarding major issues.
By early 2004, though, the honeymoon was over. The party began to crack down on newspapers and television stations that challenged party orthodoxy or dared to report on Chinese society’s “dark side.” Beijing also began more actively policing the Internet.
The authorities arrested or placed under surveillance dozens of pro-reform and pro-democracy editors, writers and “Net-dissidents.” They also targeted lawyers who were defending farmers who had lost their land to unscrupulous local officials.
But Lam is no China basher. On the positive side, Lam points out that Hu appears to be more concerned about the problems of corruption, inefficient government, and the plight of ordinary people than Deng Xiaoping or Jiang Zemin ever were.
Hu’s strategy, Lam says, is to position himself as a “people’s president” and “a spokesman for the large number of Chinese who had lost out in the course of Deng Xiaoping’s nearly three decades of reform and open-door policy.”
Lam notes that both Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao have had real experience in dealing with the poorest Chinese. Early in their careers, the two worked in grassroots-level jobs in impoverished Gansu province.
“Apart from Xinjiang party boss Wang Lequan, Hu and Wen were the only two cadres in the 25-member Politburo with substantial experience in the western provinces” of China, Lam says. The other members of this supreme body had ties to Shanghai and other coastal cities.
And both Hu and Wen have proven so far to be more popular than ex-President Jiang Zemin, according to Lam.
A particular strength of Lam’s book is that it touches on all aspects of Chinese life: the farmers, the workers, the military, and the newly rich sons and daughters of the Communist Party elite who have plunged into lucrative businesses.
This is a dense book, because Lam supports his conclusions with an incredible amount of detail. But it’s also a must-read for those who care about China’s rise and its meaning for us all.